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Wednesday, January 24, 2018

The Modern Myth of the Word "Barbecue"

One of the biggest myths surrounding barbecue is the meaning and origin of the word "barbecue." The myth is repeated so often that people have started believing it. The myth is even propagated by a very famous TV personality who hosts his own popular cooking show (Alton Brown; Good Eats). He once said, "The word "barbecue" derives from a very old Caribbean word, "barbacoa," meaning to cook on green sticks directly over a smoldering fire."

Though it may be true in our times that "barbacoa" refers to cooking over smoldering coals, few, if any, use green sticks as a grill nowadays. Alton Brown may be confusing what we call "barbacoa," or "barbecue," today, with how 16th-century Native Americans prepared meat that was resting on green sticks. However, the word "barbacoa" had a very different meaning in those days. Originally, the word "barbacoa" had nothing to do specifically with cooking. The word "barbacoa" started as a noun. Only after European mangling of the word in the 17th century did it become a verb referring to cooking.

Deceased Native American Bodies
Resting on Hurdles a.k.a. Barbacoas.
Circa 1900.
History teaches us that the word "barbacoa" referred to “The Haitian name for a framework of sticks set upon posts"; no more, no less. From the 16th through 17th centuries, a barbacoa, a.k.a. barbecue, was nothing more than what English writers referred to as an American Indian hurdle and most often it had nothing to do with cooking over a fire.

Native American hurdles were used for many different purposes. Corn cribs, dinner tables, beds, chairs, food dehydrators, bridges and even above ground graves were all made with hurdles or what we would call a wooden barbecue grill. Those kinds of non-cooking uses of the word "barbacoa" or "barbecue" represent the vast majority of the word's appearances in old writings. Overall, very few of the 16th through 17th century references to "barbacoa" or "barbecue" refer to food being cooked over fire. For example, in 1699, William Dampier used the word "barbecue" to refer to beds and chairs.

16th and 17th century Europeans didn't always have words to describe what they witnessed in the New World. Therefore, they often adopted Native American words. That's how we get our words succotash, opossum, raccoon, hominy and barbecue.
Powhatan Indian Bed made using a Hurdle

Our English word "barbecue" comes from the Spanish word "barbacoa."  17th-century Taino people in Haiti used to call wooden hurdles "barabacoa." The Spanish adopted the word from the Taino Indians changing it to "barbacoa." The English, like so many other New World words, adopted the word "barbacoa" from the Spanish but Anglicized it into "barbecue."

Different Native American tribes used their own words to refer to hurdles. In parts of the New World explored by the French, Native tribes called their hurdles "boucan." Native Americans in Guyana called their hurdles "barbacot." The Island Carribs, neighbors to the Taino in Haiti, called their hurdles "aribel." Powhatan Indians called their hurdles "petaosawin" (pronounced “petō-saw-ween”). However, the word "barbecue" is the one that English speakers adopted.

French speakers adopted "boucan" from the Tupi Indian word "mukem" (possibly "bukem"). Spanish speakers adopted "barbacoa" from the Taino word "barabacoa." By the 1630's, the English word "barbycu" was adopted by English speakers. Virginia Barbecue: A History  documents that the first use of an Anglicized version of the word "barbecue" used as a verb in English literature occurred in 1648. That is thirteen years earlier than The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and just about every other barbecue history book in existence. Those sources wrongly claim that the first use of the word "barbecue" in English literature was in 1661. The first use in English literature of the word "barbecue" as a noun occurred in 1657. Again, that is earlier than the OED and all other barbecue history books that I have ever read claim except for Virginia Barbecue: A History.

Virginia Powhatan Indian-style Hurdle.
So, you may be wondering, when did the word "barbecue" acquire its modern meanings? That happened in Virginia in the 17th century. Sometime in the late 1500s or early 1600s, English speakers started using words they learned from Spanish writings about the New World. And, why wouldn't they? Englishmen of that era were interested in making money from the New World. Therefore, they used the terminology that the Spanish had already established in the 1500s.

For example, Powhatan Indians in Virginia grew tobacco. However, they called it "apook." When English colonists started growing tobacco in Virginia using techniques they learned from Powhatan Indians (not the Taino in Haiti who taught the Spanish how to grow tobacco) they called it "tobacco" when marketing it for sale rather than "apook." They did that because that's what people who previously bought it from the Spanish called it. The adoption of the word "tobacco" doesn't mean that tobacco was "invented" in Haiti by the Taino and spread to the North American colonies. It just means that the same plant was grown by Natives in Taino and Powhatans in Virginia but the commerce of the day dictated what Europeans called it. If the English were the first to go to market with tobacco we very may well be calling it an Anglicized version of "apook" today.

The English adoption of New World Spanish words in that era was often driven by business requirements. After all, what European hooked on Spanish tobacco would want to switch over to something called "apook"? No one would and the English knew that. In the case of the word "barbecue," it became well known among the English as a New World word so they accepted it too; not because they learned to use a barbecue from people in the Caribbean but because that was the already accepted New World word for the device.

So, after toying with the words roasting, carbonadoing and barbecadoing, early Virginian colonists finally started calling the wooden Powhatan grills "barbecues." From there, Virginians started calling events where barbecued meats were served a "barbecue"; the act of cooking on a barbecue they called "barbecuing"; and the meat so cooked was "barbecued" and called "barbecue." That's how and where the modern usages of the word barbecue were born. James Hammond Trumbull, a renowned 19th century American scholar and philologist, plainly stated that the word barbecue is a “Virginian word” due to the fact that it was first used in the British North American colonies in Virginia and was transformed into the word we know today.

Drying Meat on a Hurdle. Circa 1900.
A similar myth to this one claims that barbecue the food and cooking technique originated in the Caribbean and was imported into North Carolina where it spread to the rest of the South. That tired, old myth is engrained in so many poorly researched barbecue TV shows and magazine articles that it is a tough one to dislodge. However, just because it is often repeated doesn't make it true. I will tackle that myth in my next "Barbecue Myths" post.

Read more in Virginia Barbecue: A History.

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