Where Does the Word Barbecue Come From?
The word “barbecue” comes from the Spanish word “barbacoa”. Barbacoa was the native Haitian name adopted by the Spanish for a kind of scaffolding. Then the French used it to describe a sort of grid or grill—one, no doubt, often used for cooking. The word came to designate an animal roasted whole, usually out of doors. In the 19th Century, Americans adopted the name barbacoa and anglicized it to barbecue, which came to mean an open air feast or social gathering, as we know it today.
Barbecue is usually done in an outdoor environment by cooking and smoking the meat over wood or charcoal. Restaurant barbecue may be cooked in large brick or metal ovens specially designed for that purpose. Barbecue has numerous regional variations in many parts of the world.
Traditional barbacoa involves digging a hole in the ground and placing some meat—usually a whole lamb—above a pot so the juices can be used to make a broth. It is then covered with maguey leaves and coal, and set alight. The cooking process takes a few hours. Olaudah Equiano, an African abolitionist, described this method of roasting alligators among the Mosquito People (Miskito people) on his journeys to Cabo Gracias a Dios in his narrative The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano.
Linguists have suggested the word barbacoa migrated from the Caribbean and into other languages and cultures; it moved from Caribbean dialects into Spanish, then Portuguese, French, and English. According to the OED, the first recorded use of the word in English was a verb in 1661, in Edmund Hickeringill’s Jamaica Viewed: “Some are slain, And their flesh forthwith Barbacu’d and eat”.
The word barbecue was published in English in 1672 as a verb from the writings of John Lederer, following his travels in the North American southeast in 1669-70. The first known use of the word as a noun was in 1697 by the British buccaneer William Dampier. In his New Voyage Round the World, Dampier wrote, ” … and lay there all night, upon our Borbecu’s, or frames of Sticks, raised about 3 foot from the Ground”.
Samuel Johnson’s 1756 dictionary gave the following definitions:
“To Barbecue – a term for dressing a whole hog” (attestation to Pope)
“Barbecue – a hog dressed whole”
While the standard modern English spelling of the word is barbecue, variations including barbeque and truncations such as bar-b-q or BBQmay also be found. The spelling barbeque is given in Merriam-Webster and the Oxford Dictionaries as a variant. In the southeastern United States, the word barbecue is used predominantly as a noun referring to roast pork, while in the southwestern states cuts of beef are often cooked.