Q&A: Licorice vs liquorice? Barbecue vs barbeque? Cheque vs check?

Each week, we chat about the quirks & anomalies of the English language. And sometimes that’s simply a chat about how we spell things in different parts of the world…

Q: Hello AWC, can you clear something up for me?
A: That cream you got from the doctor should do that.
Q: Haha, no I meant about the spelling of a couple of words.
A: Okay, what have you got?
Q: Well, first is “cheque” – why do Americans spell it “check”?
A: Why not? They’ve been tinkering with the English language for centuries now, and this is one of their lesser crimes.
Q: Yes, but why?
A: Noah Webster hated the British. He wanted to ignore a lot of the fussy French influences that had crept into words and simplified things back to a largely more phonetic sound. The Simplified Spelling movement of the early 20th century continued to try and distance itself from established spellings – some caught on, some didn’t.
Q: Okay, so what about taking a “rain check”? How do WE spell that?
A: Good question. Our “cheque” spelling is reserved just for the bank-issued pieces of paper, so we would write “rain check” just like the Americans.
Q: Okay, next one, what about the word licorice? Or is it liquorice?
A: Ah, well, this time the US recruited its neighbour to the north, and together both Canada and the US staunchly vote in favour of spelling it “licorice”.
Q: They really don’t like Qs do they? I ought to be afraid they wouldn’t let me into the country…
A: You’ll be fine. Just be sure to land in Albuquerque.
Q: Nice. So how do the Brits spell “licorice”?
A: In UK and Ireland, they’re into “liquorice” – and tend to use this spelling exclusively.
Q: What about Australia and NZ?
A: Well we’re quite literally a bunch of liquorice allsorts – using a combination of both spellings when it suits us. (The result of having ties with both the US and UK.) For the record, the Macquarie Dictionary – itself no stranger to a good Q – lists an entry for both, although surprisingly it does put the biggest definition under “licorice”. Just be consistent with which spelling you use. You’re likely to see both.
Q: Okay, finally, is it “barbecue”, “barbeque” or just BBQ?
A: This one is a little easier. “Barbecue” is the preferred spelling – originating from “barbacoa” or “barabicu” which date back to the New World arrivals of the 16th century.
Q: So why do I see businesses and other signage with “barbeque” on them?
A: Australia has dubiously embraced the alternative spelling – and it’s clear it came from a corruption from the abbreviated BBQ or bar-b-q alternatives. No one else seems to spell it “barbeque” anywhere else in the world (except perhaps New Zealand).
Q: Okay, so to be safe, use the “barbecue” spelling?
A: Yep, that sounds sensible. And again, the Macquarie has listed both words, but places the definition detail with the non-Q version.
Q: All this talk has made me hungry. I’m going to barbecue some liquorice…
A: Umm, we’ll take a rain check on that one…

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