A Guide to the Correct Spelling of 'Barbecue'

There are many versions, but only one is right

Pomegranate and red wine glazed pork ribs
Eugene Mymrin / Getty Images

We all know barbecue sauces have many variations, but did you know the spelling of "barbecue" does as well? There are few words in the English language that have more variations of spelling than barbecue. Everyone who writes about barbecue has to somehow address this issue, which leads to that ubiquitous statement, "no matter how you spell it..." The truth is, there is only one correct way to spell barbecue—and this is it.

However, there are several restaurants, cookbooks, and jars of sauce that think otherwise and use an alternative spelling of this word.  

"Alternative" Spellings

From changing one letter to adding multiple hyphens, we see many different versions of the spelling of barbecue. Some barbecue joints spell it with a French influence, as "barbeque." The reason that this is a misspelling has to do with the pronunciation. There are only a few words in the English language that 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. This would mean that the proper pronunciation of barbeque would sound like barbek.

There are other ways of misspelling barbecue, like when George Washington described in his diary about going to a barbicue.

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 bar-be-cue isn't any shorter than barbecue. The truth is that these are more the products of clever (or not so clever) sign-making, and the only one that is really an abbreviation is BBQ.

 There are also a few barbecue joints around with names containing barbacue, but these spellings occur so rarely that they don't merit much attention. 

Origin of Misspellings

So, how did all these "variations" come to be? Quite simply, like many words, it 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 lead to many people not knowing how the word was spelled, and therefore, creating lots of ways to misspell it. But even so, dictionaries dating back more than 250 years spell it as "barbecue."

Verification of Spelling

While it may not be the most scientific method in the world, most of us turn to one source to figure out how to spell a word we are unsure of. No, it's not a dictionary—it's our computers. Interestingly, the abbreviated spelling, BBQ, is the most popular way to spell barbecue, while "barbecue" comes in second. "Barbeque" is a distant third.