In recent days, London has experienced “The Queue,” in which people waited for up to 24 hours in order to pass by the body of Queen Elizabeth and pay their respects. And so it seems a good time to take another look at “queue,” meaning a line of people waiting for something.
As the spelling might suggest, it originated as a not one-off Frenchism. In French, “queue” means “tail,” and it was adapted by the English in the eighteenth century to mean a long plait of hair, that is, a pigtail. The French initiated the line-of-people meaning in the 1790s, and the first uses noted by the OED either italicized it as a foreign word or used it in a Gallic context, as in this quote from Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution (1837): “That talent … of spontaneously standing in queue, distinguishes … the French People.”
It’s an interesting quote because, of course, we now think of the British has having a talent for standing spontaneously in queue.
In the last half of the nineteenth century, queue-as-line was used in both Britain and the United States. An example of the latter came from New York Representative James Brooks, speaking in Congress in 1864: “Last Monday week I saw a long queue ranged around the New York custom-house waiting turns to buy gold certificates at 65, while gold was selling at 75.” And it’s worth noting that “line” was used in Britain, as in this 1711 quote from Joseph Addison: “The Officers planting themselves in a Line on the left Hand of each Column.”
But in the twentieth century, the British took “queue” up in earnest.
And soon a verb form arrived: “queue up” by 1920, and the “up”-less form some thirty years later.
As the Ngram Viewer graph shows, American use of the noun started ticking up in the 1960s. In January 1960, William Zinsser wrote in the New York Times, about the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair, “Only on very rainy days was the queue [for the “Futurama” exhibit] a short one, but few tourists begrudged the hour they spent waiting.” “Queue” has appeared in the Times 5,385 times since then. Some of the increase in use on both sides of the Atlantic has to do with the use of “queue” in computer terminology, and more recently, inspired by Netflix, as a term for a sequence of movies or songs one plans to get to. (“What’s in your queue?”) Even more recently, some people have referred to a DJ “queueing up a record,” instead of the traditional term,
cuing cueing it up.
Getting back to waiting in a queue, you can understand the word’s popularity in America, given the ambiguity-inducing multiple meanings of “line,” “line up”and “on line.” (New Yorkers wait on line, the rest of the country in line.) The only downside of “queue” is that it’s harder to spell. The gerund form actually has two versions, “queuing” and “queueing,” the former overtaking the latter in popularity in Britain in around 1990, according to Ngram Viewer. In any case, I knew a milestone had been passed about ten years ago, when I was at my local grocery store, and noticed that a sign indicating the “line” for checkout had been replaced by one indicating the “queue.”
Another milestone came in 2016, when President Barack Obama spoke against the U.K. leaving the European Union. That would portend badly for any U.S..-U.K. trade deals, he was quoted as saying: “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 in the back of the queue.”
Leaving aside the policy aspect, British commentators jumped on the president’s use of “queue,” some suggesting he been “fed” it by Prime Minister David Cameron. However, writing in the Washington Post, Adam Taylor pointed out that Obama had uttered “queue” numerous times in the past, and was kind enough to cite this blog on the president’s use of such other Britishisms as “full stop,” “run to ground,” and “take a decision.”