Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Hoping for a barbecue summer

At the end of April someone at the Met Office forecast that Britain would enjoy a ‘barbecue summer’. The expression conjures up images of ease and enjoyment and was calculated to appeal to a sun-starved nation, grown accustomed to the idea that summers are not as good as they used to be. And it is interesting to note that while English has several phrases to mean a period of fine weather in autumn – Indian summer, Saint Luke’s summer, Saint Martin’s summer – no such expression characterizes a period of prolonged hot weather during summer itself (although older readers might be able to remember a time when the single word ‘summer’ was deemed sufficient to do this job).

Anyone who is prompted by the prospect of a hot summer to issue invitations to a barbecue might pause briefly to wonder about the correct spelling of the word. It turns out that almost anything goes: both ‘barbecue’ and ‘barbeque’ are correct in the eyes of The Chambers Dictionary, while it is also acceptable to write ‘Bar-B-Q’ or even ‘BBQ’. The Australian form ‘barbie’ is also a popular variation, and doesn’t take up too much space on a sign or invitation.

The fact that the word has no single fixed spelling form hints at an exotic origin. Although it entered English via the Spanish barbacoa, its ultimate origin is Caribbean, coming from the Haitian word barbacòa, which refers to a framework of sticks set upon posts – not exactly what many of us will be cooking on this summer.

You might think Haiti’s contribution to the English language would not go much beyond this, but in fact The Chambers Dictionary lists no fewer than eleven words that can be traced to the indigenous language of Haiti. These include such familiar words as tobacco, canoe and potato, as well as the dances mambo and merengue, which might provide you with some ideas for what to do on a hot summer evening after the barbecue has finished.

Ian Brookes

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