Que, cue, or queue (or Quebec)?
Oxford’s dictionary editors noticed a strange trend on oxforddictionaries.com this year: a soaring number of page views of the obscure entry Que. – which we define as an abbreviation of Quebec. Could it be that all of these users were really interested in ways to shorten the names of Canadian provinces? Or were they hunting for something else entirely?
While we can’t be 100% certain, it seems likely that Que. may be on the receiving end of such unprecedented numbers because of understandable confusion surrounding the spelling of queue. After all, looking up a word to check its spelling is tricky if you’re not sure how it should be spelled in the first place! And while computers are good at suggesting alternatives if you type a search that is completely wrong, if your incorrect spelling is already a word (as is the case with Que.), that technique doesn’t work.
Queue originally comes from the French word for ‘tail’. It is used in British English to refer to a sequence of people, vehicles, etc., waiting for their turn – what in North America is usually called a line. This meaning gave rise to a specific use in computing contexts, where queue refers to a list of data items, commands, etc., stored in a particular order, as in ‘a printer queue’. More recently, this use has been extended to refer to such things as a list of videos to watch on Netflix, or songs to play on Spotify. Such technological applications of queue have increased the word’s usage by Americans – but admittedly, its spelling is unusual and tricky, leading to common misspellings such as ‘que’.
A homophone for queue, and yet another potential source of confusion, is the word cue. Used to refer to the long thin rod used in playing pool or billiards, cue is in fact derived ultimately from the same French word for ‘tail’ as queue, but with a simplified spelling that emerged in the 18th century. Complicating matters further, there is another meaning of cue which refers to a signal to an actor to begin their speech (the same word is used in the phrase on cue meaning ‘the correct moment’, as in ‘right on cue the door opened’). The origins of this sense of cue are unknown, though a few theories exist. It has been taken to mean the French queue (again, meaning ‘tail’) on the grounds that it originally referred to the ending of the preceding speech; however, this has never been a usage of the word in French. On the other hand, in the 16th and 17th centuries, the word was sometimes found written ‘q.’, explained by 17th century writers as a contraction for a Latin word like quando (meaning ‘when’), used to mark an actor’s copy of a play to show them where to begin. But unfortunately no evidence has been found to support this theory, either, and so the word’s origins remain ultimately unknown.
Finally, we can’t forget the Spanish conjunction que, which may also be the word users are hunting for when they suddenly find themselves looking at a Canadian abbreviation instead. If that’s the case, we’d like to take this moment to point them in the right direction!