The Grammarphobia Blog

Bon appétit

Q: Why does everyone now spell “barbecue” as “barbeque”? Isn’t this wrong? Wouldn’t the “q” version be pronounced bar-BEK? À votre santé.

A: It does seem that a word spelled “barbeque” might be pronounced bar-BEK. (Some kind of Parisian cookout, perhaps?) In fact, the usual English spelling is “barbecue,” and it’s “barbecue” in French too.

However, some English dictionaries now accept “barbeque” as a variant spelling. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), for instance, lists “barbecue” as its main entry and “barbeque” as a “secondary variant” that “occurs appreciably less often.” (Both versions are pronounced BAR-buh-kyoo.)

Although the lexicographers at Merriam-Webster’s are technically correct – “barbeque” does seem to occur a lot less often than “barbecue” – both spellings are very popular. Here’s the Google scorecard: “barbecue,” 29.9 million hits; “barbeque,” 9.3 million.

I was surprised to find that the word “barbecue” has been around since the 17th century. The verb was first recorded in English in 1661, borrowed from the Spanish barbacoa, a word from Arawak that the Spaniards picked up in Haiti. The indigenous word barbakoa meant a treehouse or a wooden framework set on posts, and not a cooking apparatus.

As first used in English, “barbecue” (both the noun and the verb) referred to the drying or curing of meat or fish on a framework.

The first use of the word in English for the actual cooking of meat or fish over a fire came along in 1690. As they say, the rest is history!

What about the spelling? It has varied over the years (“borbecu” … “barbecu” … “barbicu” … “barbikew” and so on), but has pretty much been “barbecue” from the 19th century onward.

The OED doesn’t include “barbeque” among the many spellings, but it does mention (and debunk) a myth that the word comes from a French expression: The alleged Fr. barbe à queue ‘beard to tail’ is an absurd conjecture suggested merely by the sound of the word.”

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