The sizzling vocabulary of the summer barbecue

It’s the middle of summer, and whether you spell it as barbecue, or barbeque or BBQ or Bar-B-Q, or simply call it a barbie, and if you haven’t already, it’s time to get your barbecuing* kit out and hone those barbecuing/grilling skills.

Barbecues are THE all-round sensory cooking experience. That’s why we love them so. If that sounds a tad hippy-dippy, I’ll explain. They use a cooking process involving all our five senses more intensely than anything else culinary. If you’re going the traditional route, while keeping your eye on the food to make sure it’s done to a T, you’re also watching the glowing charcoal to avoid flare-ups; you listen to the sound of the food crickling** and crackling on the grill; you savour the smell of the charcoal and the aromas the food gives off in cooking; you lovingly touch, nay, caress, the food as you baste it, brush it or turn it; and the climax is that you get to taste it with all your senses heightened and taut.

Moreover, and particularly in the traditionally constituted Anglo family of earlier decades, where the paterfamilias didn’t cook, barbecues are the opportunity for men to show off their (hidden) prowess as chefs and virtual hunters.  

But what exactly is barbecue?

Like so very many English words, it has several – in this case, interrelated – meanings. Technically, we lexicographers label such words ‘polysemous’, from the Greek for ‘many’ and the Greek for ‘sign’.

As the Collins definition notes, on one hand it’s the apparatus you cook on. That apparatus is something you might lash out thousands of pounds on for an all-singing all-dancing open-air kitchen. More likely, and more economically, you might use a portable metal charcoal barbecue on legs or a kettle barbecue or a ceramic kamado grill. Alternatively again, you might have a permanent structure of stone or brick. Or a firepit. Or a parrilla. And if you barbecue on the fly and on the hoof, as I do, you’ll just buy one of those cheap disposable barbecue trays. But whatever you do, please don’t light the tray on top of the wooden table the local authority has thoughtfully provided and burn a hole. And don’t leave it smouldering near grass or vegetation once you’ve finished.

Two other meanings are the barbecue meal itself and the food consumed at it. At this time of year, many butchers will make a point of having cuts of meat ready-marinaded for barbecuing, or readymade kebabs/kabobs. Vegetable wise, for me there’s nothing to match corn on the cob soused in butter and wrapped in alumin(i)um foil or tin foil. And for pudding, a banana, also encased in foil. Sausages are some people’s favourite, informally called ‘bangers in British English because of the noise they make if they explode. (Another onomatopoeic food is bubble and squeak.)

An American version of the good old banger, wieners, or wienies/weenies for short, is an eponym, just like another favourite barbie food, burgers. Wieners come from the German Wiener Wurst, literally ‘Viennese sausage’, and burger is an abbreviation of hamburger, which in turn is an abbreviation of Hamburger steak, that is, steak in the fashion of the German port of Hamburg. Kebabs or kabobs, which give you a golden opportunity to experiment with different food combinations, come, via Urdu, from the Arabic kabāb, ‘cooked meat’.

The fourth meaning of barbecue is the event itself. In Argentina, one would talk about an asado (the noun from the Spanish verb asar, ‘to roast; to grill’), and the food cooked would traditionally be various cuts of beef and offal. I have happy memories of the peones at a friend’s estancia braving the heat of the asado flames and preparing the food to perfection. In South Africa, a similar feast is a braavleeis, from Afrikaans braai ‘roast’ + vleis ‘meat’, that vleis being ultimately related to our flesh, which once upon a time also meant ‘meat’. In North America, one might also refer to a cookout or a clambake.

And then there’s the verb to barbecue. Now, did anyone ever complain about taking the noun barbecue and turning it into a verb? Not that I know of. This is a process called verbing that some people strenuously object to when it creates verbs such as to interface, to caveat or to dialogue.

Wherever and whatever you’re barbecuing, certain utensils are useful, if not essential, to have. Let’s start with tongs. They let you handle the food without piercing it, which you might accidentally do with a fork and thus let the flavour-rich juices dribble away. A simple monosyllable we’ve inherited from Old English which is probably related to the Indo-European root *da(n)k, ‘to bite’, which sorta makes sense as the tongs metaphorically bite into whatever they grip.

If you haven’t bought a readymade kebab, you’ll need skewers on which to thread your own. And skewer is an example of a word that has entered the mainstream from a dialect word, namely, skiver, possibly from Scandinavian. A spatula, a good Latin diminutive, from spatha, ‘a broad, flat instrument for stirring’, can also come in handy for turning flat items like steaks and portobello mushrooms. A coating brush to moisten the grill rods and the food won’t come amiss, and if you’re feeling really retro, little corn-on-the-cob pincers (from Old French) are included in one set of barbie accessories. Finally, guests will appreciate having a napkin – or a serviette, if you’re non-U. Napkin comes from Old French nappe, ‘tablecloth’, with the addition of the diminutive –kin: serviette also comes from Old French servir, ‘to serve’.

And what of that word barbecue? English borrowed it from Spanish and the Spaniards first took the term from the Caribbean language Taino, where it denoted a wooden frame on posts for sleeping on or for drying meat. Other words from Taino or other related Caribbean languages, via Spanish or Portuguese, include canoe, cassava, hammock, hurricane, iguana, maize, mangrove, potato and tobacco.

* I don’t know about you, but to me barbecuing looks somehow odd. I wanted to spell it barbecueing, but that would be wrong, because the rule states that if you add -ing to a word ending in –e, you zap the –e.

** Don’t worry if you don’t know the verb to ‘crickle’. I thought I’d made it up, but it already existed. Nobody much uses it, though, which is a shame.

By Jeremy Butterfield
Jeremy Butterfield is the former Editor-in-Chief of Collins Dictionaries, and editor of the fourth, revised edition of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage.

All opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual writers, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or policies of Collins, or its parent company, HarperCollins.

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