There are very few cuisines that are as hearty and satisfying as a home-cooked, barbecued meal. The only problematic issue with barbecue is its spelling. A hotly contested topic, the spelling of barbecue has many variations, and your preference is probably based on what region you grew up in. Food writers frequently deal with this issue but often give a simple answer such as “it doesn’t matter how you spell it.” In truth, there is only one correct way to spell barbecue, and that is the way we’ve done it here. Let’s get grilling!
Barbeque? – With a ‘q’
If you live somewhere that has been heavily influenced by the French, you probably prefer to spell it differently, as in barbeque. The thing is, when you pronounce the word, it is clear that it ends in a sound similar to what you use to play pool: cue. The English language has very few other words that end with this sound, such as miscue or fescue. The endings of barbecue, miscue, and fescue all clearly sound like the letter “Q.” When we see words that end in “que,” we typically pronounce them in a way that sounds like the letter “K” such as in unique and plaque. Using this logic, spelling barbecue the French way (barbeque) would lead to a pronunciation that sounds like “bar-bek” which is clearly not correct.
So, if we are to stay away from the French influence spelling, where exactly did the word barbecue come from? Upon encountering the Taino Indian tribe, Spanish explorers heard them use a word that sounded to them like barbacoa. Much like the modern word barbecue, barbacoa was used to describe a myriad of different things: a device for cooking, a device for sleeping, a place for living, and sometimes the food cooked on the barbacoa. Of course, our use of the word generally falls into the food category. Taino Indians typically used their barbacoa to smoke or dry various small animals either for immediate consumption or for preservation. It was essentially the Indian version of meat jerky.
The correct spelling, barbecue, first appeared in Samuel Johnson’s “Dictionary of the English Language,” in 1755. He defined it as a term used to describe the West-Indies technique of splitting a whole hog and surrounding it with a charcoal fire.
There are other commonly used spellings of the word barbecue such as bar-b-q, bar-be-que, bar-be-cue, bar-b-cue, and BBQ. These are considered abbreviations by most grammarians, even though some of them are actually longer than the correct spelling, when hyphenation is considered. These spellings are more typically seen in advertisements or other marketing materials such as restaurant menus. In fact, the correct spelling, barbecue, is used three times as often as any other spelling, including barbeque, which may seem like a fairly pervasive spelling.
Fine Points in Language
Language is a tricky subject. No matter what scholars may say is the technically correct spelling (although in the case of barbecue, they are correct) it is the population that truly gets to choose. If a word is more frequently spelled one way, that becomes the accepted way to spell it. This language wide “voting” system is the reason we spell words the way we do today. Consider words like color, favorite, and humor. In England, the preferred spelling for these words is colour, favourite, and humour. Why do Americans spell these words without the letter “U”? It is simply a matter of commonly accepted preferences. The English prefer to spell the words closer to the way the originating language spelled them, while Americans have long preferred to simplify the words into a pronunciation based spelling.
By the Numbers
Google has a nifty tool that lets you search everything in their archives, from historical texts to modern blog posts, and tally up how often certain words are used. According to this tool, there are 281 million instances of the word “BBQ,” 171 million instances of the word “barbecue,” and 42.8 million instances of the word “barbeque.” Based on our previous supposition that usage determines proper spelling, this would indicate that BBQ is the correct spelling of the word. You can discount that, though, as it is commonly agreed that BBQ is an abbreviation and not a proper spelling. As you can see, barbecue is the true winner here.