Picnics and Barbecues

Since the UK has been enjoying (or suffering, depending on how you look at it) a heat wave over the past few weeks, strawberries and instant barbecues have no doubt been selling by the bucket load. But not only is the current weather considerably un-British, but barbecue doesn’t sound particularly home-grown either.

One folk etymology suggests that the word is a compound of two French words: barbe, meaning ‘beard’, and queue, meaning ‘tail’. It supposedly comes from hog roasts, when the whole pig is roasted from head (or beard) to tail.

Unfortunately, this story isn’t true. In reality, the word is much more exotic, originating in the Caribbean in the Haitian language of Arawakan. It was originally in reference to a framework of sticks, which would be used to sleep on or to cure meat. The Spanish borrowed it from the Haitians first with barbacoa before it passed into English in the 1650s. By 1733, it was used to mean an outdoor social gathering where fish or meat would be roasted. It finally developed the sense we know now, a grill for cooking over an open fire outdoors, by 1931.

Another summer word that we’ve borrowed is picnic. This time, the word comes from a closer holiday destination: France, from their word, pique-nique. It was used from 1694 and referred to any meal where everybody contributed food or money.

The first part is easy to understand. Pique, like our pick, means to eat by small amounts. As for the nique part, it might just be a catchy reduplication of pique or it might come from the word nique meaning ‘worthless thing’. The chances are it’s a bit of both options with pique-nique therefore meaning a meal of various small items. Picnic arrived in English by 1748 but it did not become particularly popular until around 1800.

So we can’t lay claim to either barbecue or picnic. Clearly, we’re just not the nation for al fresco dining

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