Barbecue vs. Barbeque

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We all have our lists of language peeves. Most likely, no two of our lists are the same.

The reader whose email prompted this post can’t stand the spelling barbeque:

One of my pet hates (I have more than a few) is “barbeque”. When I hear that this spelling…has entered into common usage I become uncommonly angry. I have entered it into the NGram and [discovered] the wrong spelling has gradually gained ground and the right spelling is declining. Is this the future of language?

I can sympathize with the pain a fellow language lover feels when faced with one of his peeves, but I have to admit that barbeque doesn’t even register as a “one” on my scale of linguistic suffering.

I grew up in a town in which the places specializing in this type of cooking spell it Bar-B-Q on their signs and BBQ on their menus. Barbeque looks fine to me.

The first glimmer of barbeque on the Ngram Viewer shows in 1893. BBQ is there as early as 1889. Barbeque begins its rise in the 1960s; BBQ in the 1970s. Barbecue, however, remains far and away the most common spelling in printed books.

Something that may have contributed to the popularization of the barbeque spelling could be a false etymology that once made the rounds on the Web and may pre-date email hoaxes. According to this creative explanation, the word derives from a French practice of roasting a goat whole, “from beard to tail,” i.e., “barbe (beard) à (to) queue (tail).

In fact, barbecue entered English as a borrowing from Spanish barbacoa. The word went through various spelling permutations before settling down to the standard spelling of barbecue. The OED shows spellings documented at different dates:

Barbacu (1661)
Barbicu (1690)
Barbecu (1697)
Barbicue (1773)

In his diaries, George Washington (1732-1799) spelled it both Barbicue and Barbecue.

The Spanish got the word from the Arawakan word barbakoa, “framework of sticks.” This was a raised wood structure that served two functions for the Indians: 1. to sleep on; 2. to cure meat on.

The meaning “an outdoor meal of roasted meat or fish as a social entertainment” is from 1733. The meaning “a grill for cooking over an open fire” dates from 1931.

The verb “to barbecue” has been in use since 1690, but its first meaning was “to dry or cure meat.” Now it means “to broil or roast.”

A Google search brings up more hits for barbecue, but barbeque is not far behind:

barbecue 13,200,000
barbeque 12,400,000

Bottom line: The standard spelling is barbecue, but barbeque is a recognized North American variant.

British speakers, including Australians, are advised to stick to barbecue, but Americans and Canadians have the option to spell it either way: Merriam-Webster and the Oxford Canadian Dictionary of Current English both list barbeque without prejudice.

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18 thoughts on “Barbecue vs. Barbeque”

  1. Fascinating! I guess I must have seen the “barbeque” spelling enough to think it correct, and I assumed a French connection. I learned otherwise, however, when my daughter was in third grade. While doing her homework, she asked me how to spell it. Her little essay came home with the word marked with a red check. I thought, “what’s wrong with this?” The dictionary set me straight.

  2. The letter writer wondered if such changes in spelling signify “the future of language.” They do. Many spelling conventions have evolved over time and continue to do so. Any day now, all dictionaries will switch to “alright” over the still preferred “all right,” just as words like “already” and “almost” were accepted long ago. I’d save my energy for instances in which the meaning of a word or phrase changes or is corrupted by lazy wording, as in the cases of “I could care less,” or using “disinterested” incorrectly.

  3. As a North Carolinian, I’ve always seen “barbeque” as the preferred spelling so I have to agree with Mac that it’s very much a regional choice.

  4. I’m with Maeve, couldn’t care less which way this word is spelled, have seen it both ways so often it doesn’t matter to me. I never saw one spelling as more correct than the other. Since it is usually an informal gathering, any invitation I would send out would probably say BBQ anyway. Here in the US we have Outback (steakhouse) and the menu and commercials are “strine” (Australian, Aussie) themed; they call it “barbie” (as in “chicken on the barbie”), not to be confused with Barbie…or maybe Ken is planning a great night out–I mean, IN.

  5. AH! I can’t believe what my eyes are hearing regarding this abomination. Though it may be as common as flies on “refuse” there is absolutely no excuse that works for the spelling *barbeque*. None. No standard, not even a marginal one, in the English language allows for the trigraph QUE to be pronounced KYOO. The only possible reason, silly and illiterate as it is, is “the letter Q is in there”. My niece drew affectionate laughter when she used cucumber as an example of a vegetable that began with the letter Q. My niece was five. She was just learning to read, and that was why it was funny. Otherwise it would not be amusing at all. Or was she simply arriving at quecumber honestly. Do Canadians in Kyoobec get pay chekyoos? Do we get comemorative plakyoos, now? That is my kyoostion. You can be opakyoo and radiate a certain mystikyoo. And can other letters that happen to fall before a U and an E just get called by name now, instead of pronounced as the whole notion of spelling has, till now, promoted. Now we fear the Plajee. Have Major Leajee Baseball. Work with colleajees, arjee your point (for the sake of arjeement), c the Statee of Libert, strive for virtee, have an ises to pures with someone, need a tises or kleenx? Go to court to es someone for damages.
    If Es can replace Us and OOs in general now, and it doesn’t take a Q to square that circle (because, hey, that is what the letter is called so that must relevant in some way), then you aren’t stuck at being quet and working in quebicles, but you can tie your shes, eat fed, get the latest nes, go on a cres, sing the bles (in ten, of course) , sit in the living rem every day at nen. I’ll bet the very same people who would accept barbeque complain about English not being spelled phonetically.

    Or, if we take the other route, here r some other revisions we can adopt, thanks to the “forget spelling, just name that letter rule”: yn (red or whit), barbed yr, cr (as in Drive My), fanc (not plan), thirstt, b mse, pla chs in a parte drs. IOW, just adopt txt-ese as standard English. Ez.

    How can this possibly be tolerated by any remotely literate person? It simply looks stepid. Groteskyoo, even. No other words will de.

  6. I found this post when I looked up barbeque vs barbecue. As a restaurant writer, I have always used the barbecue spelling. Then, yesterday, Google corrected my spelling: “Did you mean barbeque?” I don’t think so! I have become lax in my spelling and grammar and often use Google to correct me. I think I will stop using Google as a style guide because the first name of artificial intelligence is artificial. I don’t want to hasten the evolution of spellings at the pace of Moore’s Law.

  7. Goodness, venqax…

    “None. No standard, not even a marginal one, in the English language allows for the trigraph QUE to be pronounced KYOO. ”

    So, what produces the KYOO sound in the word QUEUE if it’s not the QUE? 🙂 Certainly it isn’t the extra UE at the end that makes the difference.

  8. My degree is in English, yet I am not a grammar nazi. Who cares?! The point of communication is to communicate with those around you. Language is meant to be expressed. People become so rigid to “rules” and forget the purpose of language. If you are in the South and demand everyone is an imbecile for not spelling “barbeque” correctly, you may be correct, but you have totally missed the point of language and its beauty.
    “Barbeque” is not a lazy spelling, but an expression of BBQ (which has great history to it).

  9. @JBMoorpark

    Actually, “que” by itself in English would be pronounced “kweh”, as in:


    So yes, the final “ue” of “queue” is why that particular word is pronounced “kyoo”.

    Also consider the cue used in billiards.

  10. I always thought it came from a ranch in Texas or Utah or someplace out West back in the olden days that had a triple word name that branded their cattle with their initials: BBQ, and also held barbecues for the ranch hands. The beefs were roasted on a big spit over a fire, right? And every turn brought up the brand (brands scar beneath the hide, which would have been removed prior to roasting), so the ranch hands saw “BBQ” over and over as they waited for the cook to declare it ready. Those three letters became the name for the type of meal. And after awhile people had to come up with a word for it, and invented a phonetic spelling that worked.

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