This American contribution to international cuisine actually originated in the Caribbean, and the word comes to us via Spanish from its Indian roots. The original sense of barbecue is that of a raised, wooden (later metal) framework used for either sleeping upon or curing meats. The Indians of Guiana called it a babracot and the Haitians a barbacòa. The Spanish acquired the Haitian word and it came into English from the Spanish.
The earliest English citation, used for a sleeping platform, is from 1697, in William Dampier’s A New Voyage Round The World:
And lay there all night, upon our Borbecu’s, or frames of Sticks, raised about 3 foot from the Ground.
By 1733 the word was being used for an open-air, social gathering featuring the grilling of meat. From the diary of a B. Lynde:
Fair and hot; Browne, barbacue; hack overset.
Barbecue has at least one false etymology that is commonly promulgated on the internet and elsewhere. It is claimed that it comes from the French barbe (beard) and queue (tail); the idea being that an entire pig is roasted, from head, or beard, to tail. This is simply not the origin of the word.
(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)
Copyright 1997-2013, by David Wilton