The origin of both the barbecue cooking activity and term are somewhat obscure. The word itself varies in spelling; variations include barbeque, BBQ, and Bar-B-Q. In Australia the word is often shortened to barbie.
A plausible origin for the word, originally provided in a 1970’s French television series by Alain Bombard (French navigator who crossed the Atlantic Ocean single-handed in a rubber inflatable raft, subsequently Socialist politician and Mayor in France), ascribes provenance to the French West-Indies: French Pirates (also called: “Boucaniers” or Buccaneers – from the French “Bouc”, or Male-Goat) would habitually impale their goats on spits and roast them on an open-fire. The goats were impaled “de la barbe au cul” (from beard to butt) and thus barbe-cul = barbecu = Barbecue (the “L” in cul is silent in French).
Smoky Hale, author of The Great American Barbecue and Grilling Manual, claims that the Tainoof the Caribbean used a term “Taíno barabicoa” which means “The sticks with four legs and many sticks of wood on top to place the cooking meat.” There is also the Taíno word “barabicu“, which translates as “sacred fire pit”. In one form, barabicoa or barbicoa indicates a wooden grill or a mesh of sticks; in another, barabicu, it is a sacred fire pit.
Traditional barbicoa implies digging a hole in the ground putting some meat (goat is the best, usually the whole animal) on it with a pot underneath (to catch the concentrated juices, it makes a hearty broth), cover all with maguey leaves then cover with coal and set on fire. A few hours later it is ready.
While not everyone agrees that barbecue originated with the Taíno, researchers do generally agree that barbecue originated in the Caribbean. There is ample evidence that the word and technique migrated out of the Caribbean and into and through other cultures and languages (with the word itself moving from Caribean dialects into Spanish, then French, then English in the Americas). This would mean that the word “slowly evolved from barbacoa to barbecue and barbeque and bar-b-que and bar-b-q and bbq.”
In the Southern United States, the word “barbecue” is used predominantly as a noun which specifically refers to roast pork (which is then chopped, pulled, or sliced, depending on region, and served with a tomato, vinegar or mustard-based sauce). Many in this region believe the term BBQ resulted from when roadhouses and beer joints with pool tables advertised “Bar, Beer, and Cues.” This phrase was shortened over time to BBCue, then BBQ. Other barbecue supporters believe the word “barbeque” is a result of a gradual misunderstanding of the “BBQ” abbreviation. Due to this abbreviation, with the third syllable “-cue” being represented by the identically-sounding letter “Q,” people came to believe that the word was spelled “barbeque.” This is also evident in viewing the word’s Taíno roots, with all three variations being spelled with the letter “c,” as opposed to “q.”