The language that President Barack Obama used was evidence of skulduggery, Nigel Farage declared. ‘The UK is gonna be in the back of the queue’ if it leaves the European Union, Mr Obama said, standing next to David Cameron in front of a gilt and stencilled Victorian wall in the Foreign Office. There! Americans say stand in line, Mr Farage suggested, so Mr Obama must be delivering words fed to him by the snake Cameron.
Some reports had Mr Obama saying at the back of the queue, unconsciously adjusting his words to the British English idiom, rather than in the back of it, as though it were an estate car (station wagon).
When did the British learn to queue? It was certainly noted as an English (not British) characteristic by George Mikes, the Hungarian author of How to be an Alien (1946). ‘An Englishman, even if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one,’ he wrote. But he was writing at the end of a world war.
The earliest uses of the word queue in this sense identified it as a French habit. ‘Spontaneously standing in queue’ Thomas Carlyle wrote, ‘distinguishes, as we said, the French People from all Peoples, ancient and modern.’ That was in The French Revolution, where he made ‘In queue’ a section heading. He sees the queue for bread as a kind of enslavement: ‘All Tyranny abolished; yet behold we stand in queue!’
Carlyle used in queue as Americans use in line. He was writing only 40 years after the first French use of the word in this sense. Even by the 1870s, a queue was still written about as French: ‘a long queue, like that outside a Parisian theatre’. By 1902, the Westminster Gazette was writing of the queue having been ‘now adopted with so much success at most of the theatres’. It wasn’t until after the first world war that queue was used as a verb, usually in the form queue up.
The history of the word suggests that the British have been reluctant queuers, and only when this servility is forced on them (for the dole; at airports) do they make the best of a bad job. They still complain about whoever makes them queue in the first place.