The picnic is not a British invention, and the word itself remains a bit of a mystery. It may derive from the French verb piquer (‘to peck’ or ‘to pick’) allied to the noun nique (‘a small amount’), but no-one can be sure sure. Its first appearance is in a 1649 satire, in which the principal character, ‘Pique-Nique’, is portrayed as a hero and a glutton. By the late 17th century, fashionable Paris had adopted the pique-nique, which was now described as an indoor feast at which each guest brought a dish.
The aristocracy and gentry continued to have the monopoly on these democratic feasts until the French Revolution, when the aristos who managed to flee to London brought the concept with them, albeit in a rather vulgarised form. In 1801, a group of 200 wealthy Francophiles founded the ‘Pic Nic Society’, which were held in rooms in Tottenham Street at which each attendee was required to bring a dish and six bottles of wine. This lubricated the post-eating entertainment of gambling, music and a play.
While the French tradition blazed briefly, the London middle classes – influenced strongly by the Romantic Movement – decided that eating alfresco was a rather smart thing to do, and – thus – the name was adopted. In English hands, picnics became strictly outdoor events, and with no associated music or theatricals, it acquired an air of wholesome innocence that their French counterparts had lacked entirely. By the time Jane Austen published the infamous Box Hill picnic in her masterpiece Emma, it was an established part of the English summer.