Queue or line? President Obama and the US/UK divide

by Liz Walter

Credit: Getty Images
Credit: Getty

When Barack Obama visited the UK recently, he told us that should we choose to exit the European Union in June, we would be ‘at the back of the queue’ when it came to trade negotiations with the US. Commentators were quick to jump on his use of the British word ‘queue’ rather than its US equivalent, ‘line’, some accusing him of trying to ingratiate himself with Brits, or even implying that he was parroting words written for him by supporters of a ‘remain’ vote in Britain’s upcoming EU referendum.*

If it was indeed a deliberate choice, it was an unnecessary one. Firstly because Brits would have no trouble understanding ‘at the back of the line’, and secondly because many Brits under 40 would probably use ‘line’ themselves. ‘Line’ is just one of the words that seem to be moving inexorably across the Atlantic and becoming the default choice here, especially with younger people. Similarly, most young British people go to see a ‘movie’, not a ‘film’. My own teenage children would never talk, as I still do, about ‘going to the pictures’. They ‘go to the cinema’ or ‘go to a movie’. And to my horror, their favourite meal is now ‘mac’n’cheese’ rather than ‘macaroni cheese’.

Other changes are more subtle but no less widespread. Love it or hate it, you will frequently hear people in a British café saying ‘Can I get a coffee?’ rather than ‘Can I have a coffee?’, while ‘on the weekend’ rather than ‘at the weekend’ is heard increasingly often.

Another common US/UK distinction is in stress patterns of compound words such as ‘ice cream’ and ‘broad bean’. My impression is that these differences are much less fixed than they once were, on the British side, at least. Where older Brits would always say ‘ice cream’, the young could easily say ‘ice cream’, and may even waver between the two.

Another American habit that is gaining traction here (probably because it is simpler), is the use of the simple past where we would traditionally use the present perfect. So where older Brits would say ‘Have you spoken to Tom yet?’, younger people are just as likely to say ‘Did you speak to Tom yet?’.

Interestingly, it turns out that President Obama has actually used the word ‘queue’ a number of times over the last few years, and not in British contexts, so it’s possible that there was less significance to his choice of words than may have been imagined. In any case, the US to UK drift seems to continue. If any readers know of words going in the other direction, I’d be very interested to hear them!


* There will be a post next month on the language of the British EU referendum.

16 thoughts on “Queue or line? President Obama and the US/UK divide

  1. Alif

    It’s 11th May in the UK now NOT May 11th.

    Queue – means a lock of hair as well.

    Lots of Britons sing in american accents – tho they don’t read US books with and american accent.

    Britons have very little pride in themselves their language so it’s easy for US – who ar proud of LOOtenant and SKEJul to influence the illiterate britons.


    1. John

      Try and not make spelling mistakes next time you call British people illiterate, you emphasize the stupidity of the American people even more.

  2. Rab

    I disagree. I never hear people my age (27) use the words line or use the past simple in the way stated. Maybe the author has young kids. I have never heard anyone say they are going “to a movie” either. Also I say film not movie.

    1. Liz Walter

      That’s interesting – my kids are 19 and 17, and they and their friends definitely say these things. I wonder if there are regional differences? Also, I hear past simple used on TV interviews, etc.

    2. Matthew

      I agree. I can’t recall any British person using the past simple in that way. I do recall picking up some Americanisms myself when I was a child, only to drop them when I entered the adult world. I don’t think it’s a trend, it’s just the inevitable result of watching a lot of American television. Kids soon grow out of it though. I remember being mercilessly taunted by an older colleague for saying ‘not a whole lot…’ and quickly learned to drop that and other Americanisms.

      1. Matthew I would say that “Did you speak to Tom yet?” is the standard form in Scotland, as is “Can I get a coffee?” though the latter might be from a slightly less formal form of Scottish English. I do wonder whether many of the differences that American English has actually come from Scotland in the first place, as I’m sure these features of Scottish English are of long standing and unlikely to have come from America. A bit like Halloween – a Scottish custom that has come to England via America!

  3. Thank you for the post, Liz. Concerning the simple past instead of the present perfect, I think one reason for younger people to speak this way is that generally they do not care so much about the result of a process (“Have you spoken …” — the process is finished), but rather about the process itself (“Did you speak …” — you may need to speak again and again). Am I right? What do you think?

    1. Liz Walter

      That’s an interesting theory. It may be the case, but if so, it’s on a very subliminal level – I don’t think people really think much about why they choose a particular form in everyday speech – it just come out naturally.

  4. Despite the fact that what I am going to point out here might turn out to be hardly the case all the way through, I still feel fairly strongly it is worth highlighting anyway just in case someone may find it to be their thing!
    In a word, as far as I know several American drag queens have a tendency to use the word “gig” so as to describe their striking appearances onstage as a whole. If I am not mistaken, the word “gig” first originated in namely British English where it is, as a rule, used quite often in day-to-day speech to describe stacks of kinds of performances in general.
    Having said that, there might any other way of looking at it proving that this word is common for both versions of the language)
    All in all, it’s still worthy of your attention, because personally I was really astonished at stumbling across some native Americans putting this word into their daily conversations)
    Thanks in advance and may everyone’s day be as good and fine as they expect it to be!)

  5. Cambridge Dictionary defines ingratiate as behaving in a way to get someone to like you, and if the American president was doing that by saying queue rather than line, he was doing was hundreds of statesmen have been doing for ages, and must not be thought of badly because of it. I believe that he was simply try to use a word which he felt was more common to Britons, even though he would’ve been understood had he said line. Furthermore, I don’t understand why some speakers on both sides of the pond feel the need to bind themselves out of what?–feeling of patriotism?–to using any one word over another, so long as they are understood by their listeners: synonyms. If British English can adopt Greek, Latin, French, Italian, Spanish, German, Scottish, Welsh, Irish, Indian words, and so on, it surely can adopt North American words as well–and the other way around. The children are doing it anyway.

  6. Steve Rogers

    I’m a native-born American (who has lived in the UK) and who routinely uses “British” words and idioms for fun. Thus, I sometimes substitute queue for line. Pop culture influence goes both ways, and every American I know has watched enough James Bond and/or Harry Potter movies (films) to be knowledgeable about most Britishisms. Just for fun, I will pronounce schedule with a soft ch if I’m around people that know I’m speaking “British” by choice and are hip to “Brit-speak.”

    Having said all that, here are a few things we Yanks just won’t say:

    I don’t think any self-respecting speaker of American English would ever use the phrase “queue up.” To me that idiom instantly conjures up cliched images of an overbearing English schoolmaster.

    Additionally, on this side of the pond, we usually don’t “up” anybody, meaning we would never chat up, ring up, or knock up (that means to impregnate to us) a girl.

    Furthermore, signs exhorting someone to “mind their head” leave most Americans scratching said head and thinking “say what?” Since to an American, “mind” would always mean to obey (and not to pay attention to), an American would always say “watch your head” not “mind your head.” (“Mind your manners” is the one phrase I can think of where Americans use the word “mind” to mean “pay attention to.”)

    While we’re talking about minding things, where in blazes did you Brits ever come up with the term “mind the gap”? That one always cracks me up!!

    Finally, while many Brits still let loose with archaic words such as whilst and shan’t, I have never ever heard an American use either term. I certainly know what both mean, but both of these words are well on their way (IMO) of joining the dodo.

    All of this commentary is in good fun, of course (meaning you should be smiling as you read). In the mean time, we’ll keep exporting our American slang across the pond to you. In return, we expect you to send some new fresh Brit-slang back our way. (“I say, old thing” and “Jolly, what” have long ago exceeded their life expectancy.)

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