The dialectology of queues

I had occasion yesterday morning to contemplate the dialectal differences between Australian and US English when talking about queues and lines. This was at 5:30am at Rochester (NY) airport when they had 1 person checking ID and 1 screener (there are usually 5) for about 600 people leaving between 6 and 6:45. Needless to say, there were far more people outside security than beyond the barriers, and the flight announcements of “Flight XXX is about to close. Would the following passengers make their way immediately to gate B3 to board their flight: <list of 30 names follows>. You are delaying the departure of your aircraft.” were pretty funny (I did say it was 5:30am).

Anyway.  The first difference is that I would call the phenomenon I was in a queue, whereas here of course it can only be a line. The line for me has slightly different semantics (for instance, at one point, the queue went into a sort of ‘floodout’ where about 15 people were next to each other; lines can’t do that in my dialect). I can stand in line or stand in the line <for X>, but not stand on line, which is the preferably US English expression. I don’t know if it’s possible to stand on <the> line for X, but it sounds pretty strange. The term queue-jumper presumably doesn’t exist here (not sure if you can say ‘line-jumper’?) and it’s an antisocial thing to do. Jumping to the head of the queue, however, doesn’t mean the same thing.  The anatomy of the line itself if different. The front of the queue/line and the head of the queue/line are the same. However, the other end of the queue/line isn’t the ‘tail’ – the tail is the bit of the line between the head and the other end. It’s a corollary of this that only longish queues can have tails (this is etymologically ironic, I guess). The other end of the queue is the back. This brings me to my last difference. When an Australian starts to queue (note *to line), they join the end or the back of the queue. However, the Americans were joining the start of the line: the question I most frequently heard was “does the line start here?” 

This would seem to imply that a queue/line is conceptualised differently in Australian English versus American English. Perhaps the difference is something like this: In Australian English, the queue is the overflow of people who are waiting for something. That overflow has a starting point and an end point. As the length of the queue increases, the endpoint for the overflow moves, but the overflow start doesn’t. However, the American line is more like the process of waiting for something. Therefore when someone joins the line, they start the process of waiting, therefore when they join the line, they are starting to enter the activity of waiting, therefore the start of the line is where they start that process. 

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9 responses to “The dialectology of queues

  1. Hunh, I had never thought of how, yes indeedy, the start of a line is the back. But then again, I think I would also use the term “start of the line” (or, better yet, “beginning”) to refer to the, uh, place where the first person is lining up. Interesting conceptualization ideas, though. ^_^

    I did want to say that I can’t say “on line”, and was always under the impression it was British. At least, one of the kids from London here says it. “In line” works fine though. And is queue jumping the same as line cutting, then? People who cut are the ones you definitely do not share dessert with.

    Furthermore, Happy New Year. =)

  2. This is really interesting. I think I use start & end interchangeably to mean the place where new people join the line, and then the place where you do whatever it is you lined up for is the front. (Maybe it can be the start, too–I’m not quite sure.) BTW, “on line” is definitely not preferred in the whole country. I don’t know exactly what the distribution of it is, but I’m from CA, and I never heard “on line” until I came to the Northeast.

  3. Yep, line cutting is the same (hmm, I can “cut in front of someone” in Australian English, but that’s usually for driving). Thanks for the ‘on line’ comments – I wonder how far south it goes.

  4. In Australian queues, cheeky people ‘push in’ rather than ‘cut in’ don’t they?

    This post made me laugh. I remember being in New York airport when I was 17 and telling my new American friend I was in a queue and she had no idea what I was talking about.

    She laughed more though when I referred to someone’s ‘bum’. hehehehhe.

  5. “In line” is correct in most of North America; standing “on line” is associated specifically with New York.

    Oh, and for me, the “end” of the line is definitely the part farthest from where the action is.

  6. I agree with Nick that “in line” is the usual term through most of North America. I was completely perplexed by your description of “on line”, it sounded even more foreign to me than queues. The “end” is always where the last person in line is standing. You can walk up to someone and ask “are you in line?” and their response might be “yes, the end is over there” as they point to the last person in the line. If you then asked them where the start of the line was, aside from the perplexed look you’d get at asking such a peculiar question because it should be obvious from context, they would probably point to the service counter or the ticket taker or the door or the metal detectors. If someone asked me “does the line start here?”, I would give them a funny look but then say “yes” (or more likely “uh, yeah”) because I could figure out what they meant from context.

    The only thing that I can think of that may be related to the peculiar use of “start” that you encountered is the Dutch word “staart” which means “tail”, as of an animal. I think it’s used with lines in the same way that “end” is used in English, but I could be wrong because my Dutch is pretty rusty. That might perhaps be a remnant of the last vestiges of Dutch influence from the Niew Amsterdam colony on New York and Hudson River Valley English.

    Stepping into a line at some point other than at the end is cutting. Such a person is referred to as a “line cutter”, or more usually just a “cutter”. I recall many disputes involving cutting when I was in elementary school, and the associated exclamation is “hey, no cuts!” However, cutting I think refers only to entering the line somewhere behind the first person, since stepping in front of the first person would be “jumping ahead” or “jumping in front”. A special service offered to members of special airline mileage plans at security checkpoints in airports allows them to “skip the line” because they have their own beside the plebian one.

  7. Here in central Ohio the preferred term is “ditching” (or less often, “dishing”). Not “ditching in line,” either, just a plan intransitive (as in “Hey, no ditching!”) or as a transitive, whose direct object is the person who ends up immediately behind the ditcher. It always takes me a beat when someone says, “He ditched me” to realize that they don’t mean someone abandoned them, but that someone cut in line in front of them.

  8. Seconding Nick, “on line” is a classic NYC dialect form.

  9. Neal, that’s really interesting – dish someone to me is only to “trash-talk” them. Steve, I’ve heard it in Boston a fair bit (although I couldn’t say if it was a “real” Boston form or from imports), and in Rochester. “On line in Wegmans”…

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