Today is Tsiknopempti (Greek: Τσικνοπέμπτη). This is a day when the air fills with the smell of meat cooked over charcoal. In short, it is a day of street barbecues in Greece, and to reflect that, today’s word is barbecue.

Various folk etymologies have been put forward for the origin of this word. The one I personally find most amusing is that it comes from French, and that the expression was barbe à queue, which would mean ‘beard to tail’. The idea is that a whole animal was strung up and roasted completely. Nice idea, but no, that is not where the word comes from.

The first time it appears in Europe is in 1526, when Gonzalo Fernández De Oviedo y Valdés uses it in his Diccionario de la Lengua Espanola. Oviedo was a venturer who explored the Caribbean during the 1500s. He used the word barbacoa in Spanish. It was then used to describe the raised wooden rack which was used by native peoples in what is now Haiti, the Taino people. For them, this rack was a cooking device. It would be hung about with meat, which was then slowly smoked. They called the rack barbacoa, or at least, that is how it sounded to Spanish ears. The original language, known as the Taino dialect of Arawak, was not written down.

Back in Europe, the word was adopted into English. Barbacoa quickly became barbecue, more suited to the sound patterns of English, and the sense transferred from the frame used for cooking the meal to the meal itself. By 1755, it had come to mean the social occasion of an outdoor roasted meal, and Samuel Johnson included it in his Dictionary of the English Language.

So, in the spirit of today, buen provecho! Or perhaps, since it is Greece that is celebrating, καλή όρεξη!

You can experience Tsiknopempti through my story on Jump Mag


2 thoughts on “Barbecue

  1. Yes, this is what I understood from my food readings and in the USA, barbecue still refers to the method (a smoking pit- pit ‘cue) as opposed to the meat itself. Go south, beyond the Mason Dixon line and what we Brits call barbecue, they call grilling. To them, barbecue means slow pit cooking, over wood or coals with no direct application of heat.

  2. I had a look at the word “barbecue” and saw in a dictionary on a Taino website a form of the word written as: “baqueque” (another website claims that the most authentic spelling would be “barbicu”.)

    In the dictionary “baqueque” was glossed with a short etymology in Spanish:
    “BAQUEQUE: chozas, las mas pobres BAY= casa, morada (E)QUEQUE= superlativo de EQUE= menor, pequeno.” – the poorest kind of hut BAY=house, home (E)QUEQUE= superlative of EQUE= minor, small.
    So “baqueque” would seem to mean “little hut” which does seem to make sense when you consider the definition of “barbecue” as being a ‘framework of sticks’ etc. although I don’t know if this ‘little hut’ derivation is a folk etymology or a little contrived?

    Along with the French “barbe à queue” ‘beard to tail’ folk etymology I saw on a wikipedia page another dubious derivation of “barbacoa” this time from Basque (yes! – that go-to default setting for any unknown or fanciful etymology next to the language of Atlantis!) from Basque: “barba(do)koa” literally “that (-a) [food] of/from (-ko) [the] barba(do)”.

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