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Queue, noun.

Queuing is a national passion of the English, according to the Hungarian author George Mikes: “An Englishman, even if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one.” Its old meaning was a long plait of hair, and in the early days it was sensibly spelled “cue,” but the French form (from the word meaning “tail”) soon won out.

Visiting Americans, perhaps daunted by the preposterous spelling, sometimes refer to it as “lining up,” but this should be avoided. Only schoolchildren line up. The process of queuing may be identical, but we like to think we are grown-ups.

Often, say in a shop waiting to be served, it is not convenient to form an actual queue. In these circumstances you are expected to remember your place in the sequence. When your turn comes and the assistant asks, “Who’s next?” you should make momentary eye contact with the person who arrived after you — who will nod slightly to acknowledge your priority.

In the eyes of the English, there is no crime worse than “queue-jumping.”

Nowadays, the French find the English love of queuing as amusing as anyone else; but in his study of the French Revolution, author Thomas Carlyle remarked in 1837: “That talent of spontaneously standing in queue, distinguishes the French People from all Peoples, ancient and modern.”

(This is the first known use of the modern sense of “queue” in English.) Carlyle implied that this genius for order among crowds made the revolution possible. If so, perhaps the English Revolution will not be long coming.

Mark Wainwright is a Ph.D. student in the linguistic department at Cambridge University, England.

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