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.
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.