Last week, when U.S. President Obama was in England, he created a bit of a kerfuffle when he spoke against the  U.K. leaving the European Union. That would portend badly for any U.S..-U.K. trade deals, he said:

I think it’s fair to say maybe some point down the line, but it’s not going to happen any time soon because our focus is on negotiating with the E.U. The U.K. is going to be at the back of the queue.

Leaving aside the policy aspect, British commentators jumped on the president’s use of “queue,” which of course is British English for the American “line” and has been covered many times on this blog, for example here. Writing about the episode in the Washington Post, Adam Taylor reproduced tweets whose authors purported to be shocked, shocked, that Obama would use such a word, some of them suggesting that he had been “fed” it by Prime Minister David Cameron.

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This was of course absurd. Taylor pointed out that Obama had uttered “queue” numerous times in the past, and was kind enough to cite NOOBs on POTUS’s use of the Britishisms “full stop,” “run to ground,” and “take a decision.”

A couple of other factors were at play. First, Obama is an inveterate “code-switcher,” changing his vocabulary and cadences to fit his audience. Thus, in front of a British crowd, he would be even more likely than usual to haul out “queue.”

The second is what I call the “Elegant Variation Effect” (EVE), after the great writer on usage H.W. Fowler. He coined the term “elegant variation” to mean the deliberate use of a synonym to avoid word repetition. In the quotation above, Obama uses “line” in the first sentence; hence, “queue” in the second.

When there are British and American English terms that mean exactly the same thing, Americans often use the British one on subsequent reference, due to EVE. One saw this recently in the announcement that Harriet Tubman would replace Andrew Jackson as person pictured on the front of the American twenty-dollar bill. “Bill” is the American word, which the Brits refer to as “note.” Here’s the opening paragraph of the New York Times article announcing the change (underlining mine):

Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew on Wednesday announced the most sweeping and historically symbolic makeover of American currency in a century, proposing to replace the slaveholding Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill with Harriet Tubman, the former slave and abolitionist, and to add women and civil rights leaders to the $5 and $10 notes.

Over the rest of the article, the terms were used interchangeably. And no kerfuffle ensued.

9 thoughts on “Queue-fuffle

  1. It appears that various comments to the original article adequately identified the insular views of some Britishers’ replies and outlooks on POTUS’s use of the term. As for myself, Ronnie Gonzalez’s comment, “Americans typically…use the term ‘queue’ [only] in the computer industry…,” whether true or not, certainly reflects my own experience. I was introduced to the term when I was hired into the computer industry as a programmer in 1968 and I have been using the term, both in the computer and general contexts, ever since.

  2. This sentence is both awkward and unclear. What were you trying to say? “When there are British and American English have terms that mean exactly the same thing, Americans often use the British one on subsequent reference, due to EVE.”

  3. In this clip

    at 2:23 Obama says
    “… and UK’s going to be in the back of the queue.”
    If that had been fed to him, the wording would have been “… at the back of the queue.”
    Furthermore, he says it as part of an answer to a question from a journalist, which makes me see it as part of his natural stream of thoughts rather than a planted phrase.
    Interesting, too that he does not precede ‘UK’ with ‘the’.

  4. I remember being told sometime in the seventies that American’s don’t use the word to queue as we do in the UK, which intrigued me as I’d read a science fiction story by an American author, Keith Laumer, which was called In the Queue. First appeared in a US anthology in 1970. As I recall, it had nothing to do with queue in computer meaning, but actually involved lots of people standing in line, seemingly forever, with no indication of what they were queuing for.

  5. Nice Fowler reference! I’ve seen the use of the word queue a lot lately on Reddit posts, but it’s often spelt ‘que’. That’s actually not illogical if you bear in mind the now-accepted alternative spelling of ‘barbecue’ as ‘barbeque’.

  6. It was widely speculated in the British press that Obama said “queue” specifically because this was intended for use as soundbite/quotation material. Editors were therefore spared the decision of whether they needed to include some kind of gloss or interpretation of “line”.

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