Samuel Foote’s comic play The Nabob, now obscure, is the first linkage of picnic with the euphemism “nick-nack.” He used in the sense of dining en piquenique, which suggests familiarity. The alliterative corruption is meant to be humorous for those in the know of the trendy Parisian custom:
Janus Time enough. —You had no particular commands, master Conserve?
Conserve Only to let you know that Betsy Robins has a rout and supper on Sunday next.
Janus Constant still, Mr. Conserve, I see. I am afraid I can’t come to cards, but shall be sure to attend the repast. A nick-nack, I suppose?
Conserve Yes, yes; we all contribute, as usual: The substantials from Alderman Sirloin’s; Lord Frippery’s cook finds fricassees and ragouts; Sir Robert Bumper’s butler is to send in the wine, and I shall supply the desert.
Janus There are a brace of birds and a hare that I cribbed this morning out of a basket of game.
Conserve They will be welcome. — [Act 1, sc. 2]
A nick-nack is a meal to which guests dined are expected to bring a share. Where (and when) Foote got this expression nick-nack is a mystery. Perhaps he coined it. But by not using picnic, Foote lost his chance for linguistic fame. Ironically, an anonymous poem, “Samuel Foote,” appearing in a journal titled The Pic Nic (1803) remembered Foote as
A satirist without gall, a random wit,
That shot his bolt, not caring where it hit.
By then, Foote was dead for twenty-six years, and the picnic was entering the popular vocabulary. Nick-Nack never surfaced again and is buried in The Nabob.
See Foote, Samuel. The Nabob; a Comedy in Three Acts. London, 1772
Featured Image: Attributed to Joseph Wright. Samuel Foot (left), David Garrick, Mr.s Garrick Eva Maria Veigel. This is a heady company for Foote because Garrick was the premier actor of his time. Note, too, that Veigel’s breasts are exposed.