Sometimes it seems like everything in the world of barbecue is controversial: the type of meat, the style of pit and wood used to cook it, and the sauce to be served on it or alongside—assuming, of course, that you believe barbecue should be served with sauce in the first place. Heck, we can't even agree on how to spell the word.
Back in the 18th century, there were almost as many ways to spell barbecue as there were people cooking it: barbacue, barbicu, borbecue. In his diary entry for September 18, 1773, George Washington recorded that he attended, “a Barbicue of my own giving at Accotink.”
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He may have been the Father of our Country, but Washington's spelling didn't stick. By the time of the Civil War, Americans had settled on two primary versions—barbecue and barbeque—and that’s as close as we’ve come to consensus. The North Carolina Barbecue Society has come down on the side of the "c", but their neighbors in the Palmetto State, home of the South Carolina Barbeque Association, are more prone to go with the "q," as are the folks out in Missouri in the Kansas City Barbeque Society.
Lexicographers clearly prefer "barbecue," though many dictionaries allow "barbeque" as an acceptable secondary spelling. The "c" form has long been the dominant spelling in print, but Google's Ngram search tool, which lets you count the appearance of specific words in their archive of millions of digitized books, shows that "barbeque" has been gaining ground over "barbecue" in just the past decade, so this debate may not be settled yet.
Of course, not everyone has the time to spell out all eight letters. The shortened version “Bar-B-Q” started popping up in newspapers in the 1920s, mostly in ads for barbecue restaurants. Before long, companies were selling outdoor electric “Bar-B-Q” signs for restaurants, which by my reckoning saved proprietors three expensive letters.
But, even that wasn't economical enough. After World War II, “BBQ” started to be used as a sort of shorthand to save a few more pennies in classified ads, much like FROG (“finished room over garage”) or OBO (“or best offer”). This faux-acronym is one of the few terms in common usage that’s fully capitalized like an acronym but whose letters don’t actually stand for separate words.
And we can get even more abbreviated yet. Just outside of Lexington, North Carolina, is a restaurant called "Tarheel Q." The crowds of hungry diners crowding the place don't seem confused at all about what that big Q means.
The reality is that most barbecue folks aren’t too particular when it comes to matters of orthography. When I’m writing about specific restaurants, I try to use whatever spelling the owner has picked for his or her place, but even that’s not simple. For example, what should you call the classic old-school joint in Jackson, Georgia? “Fresh Air Barbecue”, “Fresh Air Bar-B-Que”, “Fresh Air Barbeque”, or “Fresh Air Bar-B-Q?” I have no idea: all four are used on the homepage of their website.