Unknown in English until 1748, the word picnic appears in a private letter written by Lord Chesterfield to his son Philip who was living in Leipzig. They communicated regularly by letter but only Chesterfield’s were published in 1774–and no one noticed.
Indirectly, we know that Philip wrote to say that he attended a picnic because that’s the word Chesterfield repeats in a return letter. However being unfamiliar with the word, Chesterfield asked what it was: “I know that you go sometimes to Madame Valentin’s assembly,” he asks Philip, “What do you do there? Do you play, or sup, or is it only la belle conversation?” Philip’s reply evidently suggests that some of the time was spent playing cards (gambling), to which the alert Chesterfield replied, “I like the description of your picnic, where, I take it for granted, that your cards are only to break the formality of a circle, and your symposium intended more to promote conversation than drinking.”
After this exchange, Philip probably accepted his father’s admonishment with a shrug. The subject was dropped.
Featured Image: Philip Dormer Stanhope. The Letters of Philip Dormer Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield to His Son Philip Stanhope, Esq. 2 vols. London: J. Dodsley, 1774. A ghostly portrait of Chesterfield bleeds through the paper.
See: The Letters of Philip Dormer Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield to His Son Philip Stanhope, Esq., 2 vols.. London: J. Dodsley, 1774; The Letters of Philip Dormer Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield to His Son on the Fine art of Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman. Edited by Oliver H. G. Leigh. Washington & London: M. Walter Dunne, 1901; https://archive.org/stream/letterstohissono01chesuoft/letterstohissono01chesuoft_djvu.txt
PS: I’ve not been able to found out anything about Madam Valentin and her circle in Leipzig. Can anyone help?