Corporate America's picnic-parties

There's been a lot of talk about corporate outings, retreats and junkets recently, as financial companies are called to task for spending lavishly on gifts, trips and rewards for clients and employees while accepting federal bailout money. The New York Times has a story today about how they are being cut back. I wanted to know where junket, which is a trip taken at someone else's expense, comes from. Both Merriam-Webster Online and the American Heritage Dictionary give the first definition of junket as a dessert made of flavored milk and rennet. (Rennet is the lining of a cow's stomach. Spew.)

The OED takes the word back one step further, giving the first definition of junket as "A basket (originally made of rushes); especially a basket in which fish are caught or carried." Its second definition refers to the dessert, which was "originally made in a rush-basket or served on a rush-mat." The meaning of a rush basket was in use as far back as 1382, according to the OED; its meaning of a dessert to 1460.

The OED's fourth definition touches on the usage in the sense of a lavish trip: "A feast or banquet; a merrymaking accompanied with feasting; also in modern use (chiefly U.S.), a pleasure expedition or outing at which eating and drinking are prominent; a picnic-party." The OED's first quotation of junket to mean banquet in 1530. Its first quotation on the free trip usage was in the Detroit Free Press in 1886: "The term ‘junket' in America is generally applied to a trip taken by an American official at the expense of the government."

American Heritage's third definition expands on the idea of the free trip, which makes sense if this is an Americanism: "A trip or tour, especially: a. One taken by an official at public expense. b. One taken by a person who is the guest of a business or agency seeking favor or patronage." Merriam-Webster adds: " a promotional trip made at another's expense <a film's press junket>."

Unfortunately, the OED can't explain much about how it got its different meanings. From the etymology: "Of somewhat obscure history, in respect both of forms and senses, but apparently adopted from Old Northern French jonket, jonquet or jonquette, meaning rush-basket, from jonc meaning rush."