There are few words in the English language that have more spelling variations than barbecue. Everyone who writes about barbecue has to address this issue somehow, which leads to that ubiquitous statement appearing in far too many books, magazines, newspapers, and websites reading, “no matter how you spell it,” blah, blah, blah. The truth is, however, that barbecue has only one correct spelling, and I just did it.
Right off the bat, I will get hate mail from all those barbecue joints that spell it with the French-influenced “barbeque”. The reason that this is a misspelling has to do with the pronunciation. Only a few words in the English language end in cue, like rescue or miscue.
Say these out loud, and they rhyme with barbecue, making it clear that the ‘cue is spoken exactly as the letter Q. ‘Que, on the other hand, shows up at the end of words where it is spoken like the letter K, as in torque or physique. That would mean that the proper pronunciation of barbeque would sound like barbek; whatever that is.
There are other ways of misspelling barbecue, of course, like when George Washington described in his diary about going to a barbicue. There are also a few barbecue joints with names containing barbacue, but these spellings occur so rarely that they don’t merit much attention. But what about all those other “spellings” of barbecue like BBQ, bar-b-q, bar-be-que, bar-b-que, bar-b-cue, or bar-be-cue? Dictionaries describe these as little more than abbreviations though I don’t understand how bar-be-cue is any shorter than barbecue. The truth is that these are more the products of creative (or not so clever) sign making, and the only one that is an abbreviation is BBQ, like the spelling in the URL at the top of this page.
So, how did all these “variations” come to be? Like many words, barbecue was spoken long before it was put in a dictionary. Barbecue, as defined as a style of food from the Southern United States, is a folk tradition and not the subject of academic works until recently. This led to many people not knowing how the word was spelled, and they found many ways to misspell it. But still, dictionaries dating back over 250 years spell it as barbecue. So, with all apologies to the Kansas City Barbeque Society, the South Carolina Barbeque Society, and the hundreds, if not thousands, of barbecue joints worldwide (no apology for French barbeque restaurants needed), the word is spelled barbecue. Would you really join the “Some Random Place” Barbek Society?
The problem is language is the ultimate democracy, and every time we say or spell a word, we vote on how it should be used and how all its little letters should be arranged. Unfortunately, pollsters are too busy on trivial things like politics to gauge language. Hence, we are forced to look at different methods to see how most people weigh in on the issue of spelling.
While it may not be the most scientific source in the world, most of us turn to one place for answers. No, I’m not talking about a dictionary. Those are made of paper, and paper is made of trees, which is bad for the environment or something. Not only that, but if we need to spell a word, we don’t want to move whatever the dictionary is holding up, to pull it out and risk a paper cut looking for a word we don’t know how to spell in a book arranged in alphabetic order. And, since we are either sitting at a computer or holding one in our hands, it is easier to type it into Google to see how autocorrect will figure it out. This means that with a current Google tally of 281,000,000 votes, the way to spell barbecue is BBQ. Barbecue comes in second with 171,000,000 votes, while barbeque is a distant third with only 42,800,000.
Once again, the people have spoken, and they are wrong.
You might also want to see my definition of barbecue.