Make Your Editor Cry: Cue vs. Queue

Make Your Editor Cry: Cue vs. Queue

Cue typically refers to a signal that encourages someone to take an action, while queue indicates an ordered line or file. Both cue and queue are pronounced like the letter Q, and are considered to be homophones.

A cue can be a signal prompting an event or action, especially in a performance. It can also be be the long stick used to strike the “cue ball” in the game of billiards and pool, but that meaning is seldom mixed up. Cue also works as a verb meaning give a cue.

The word queue is rare in US English. A queue is either a line of people waiting for something, or it can also be a hair braid worn down the back of the neck, but that meaning is seldom mixed up. As a verb, queue means get in line or one’s place in line. Either of these homophones in their initial and primary meanings are often used with the word upcue up meaning prepare [something] or to start on cue, and queue up meaning get in line or to make a line.

NOTE: There are some other possible confusions of these words such as “Que,” which is only ever the proper abbreviation for the Canadian province of Quebec, and “Qué” (note the diacritical é) which is the Spanish word meaning “what” as in “¿Qué pasa?” Neither of these have anything in common with the two spellings addressed in this article and should not be used in their place, uh, ever. Hopefully that clears that up.

The word cue most likely comes from the Latin quando, meaning “when.” According to the way-back machine, quando was used in theater many moons ago as a stage direction in actors’ scripts to signal when a certain spoken line or bit of stage business should begin. In a script, the identified “speaker” was quando followed by the note of what needed to be said or done at that exact time. Often, the word quando was abbreviated to just the initial letter Q. Read the letter aloud, and it becomes obvious how the word “cue” originated. Outside of tehater, a cue is “a hint, suggestion, or something that brings a specific memory or response to mind.” As a verb, to cue is to prompt.

Examples:

Cue up the tape (or audio or video).
Cue the swans!
Did you miss your cue?

In the first example, the meaning is to find a specified starting point of a recording and pause it there, making ready to play the remainder from the proper place at the proper time. In the second example, it is possible that little feathery ballerinas need to take their place on the stage in a performance of The Nutcracker or it is possible that a Bridzilla needed live swans to make an appearance on her wedding day because, you know, gaining a husband wasn’t sufficient spectacle. In the third example, missing a cue means to miss the point or to fail to respond to a prompt.

Queue derives from the Latin word cauda or coda which means “tail.” (Note: The Italian word Coda from the same Latin root is a musical term with a similar meaning.) In the world of computing, to queue means to store code and retrieve commands or data in a very specific order, soft of like a checklist. The queue is a list of such items and can be referred to when debugging long, complex sections of executable code or functions. It is not uncommon at all to see the word queue used in this way in the technical field in any English speaking nation.

In (mainly) British English, queue refers to a line of waiting people or vehicles or to starting such a line or to taking one’s place in such a line. In this sense, you will often see queue followed by the word up. The expression, “jump the queue” is equivelant to the US English expression to “cut in line.” Someone who can jump the queue without regard is a very evil individual who likely also tortures small animals and talks in the theater.

Examples:

The customers queued up to buy the latest smartphone.
After counting the dozens of automobiles ahead of him in the queue for the ferry, Boris realized he would not make it aboard this trip.

In the contemporary English speaking world, a queue can refer to the selected streamable items in the context of a streaming service.

Examples:

I have songs from Mercy Me set to play in my queue every day next week.
I will add the film I Still Believe to my rental queue when it is available.
We binge watched all the Top Chef shows in our queue last week.

NOTE: In this context, you absolutely CAN cue up songs or videos in your personal queue, but you absolutely CANNOT queue up songs or videos in your personal cue.

Example:

Would you plase find The Great British Baking Show final episode in our queue and cue it up to the last 6 minutes for me?

Finally, a queue refers to a single braid that is worn hanging down a person’s back, usually assciated with the hairstyle enforced by Imperial China. While this is probably the most rare meaning for the word I have ever seen it is the first definition listed in Webster, made more obscure by them with the absence of any potentially “offensive” references to things like Asia or China. My research informs me that in this hairstyle, the front and sides of the head are shaved, and the rest of the hair is gathered up and plaited into a long braid that hangs down the back. In the western world, the image of Asian men, specfically, with queues is practically synonymous with the image of imperial China. Men of Imperial China wore this style for several hundred years, between the 1600s and the early 1900s because the first Manchu emperor of China ordered all Han Chinese men to adopt the queue as a sign of submission to the new regime or else they risked public beheading (with exceptions for monks). The final death-knell of the queue came in 1922, when the former Last Emperor of the Qing Dynasty cut off his queue.

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