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.