This week’s word is queue as that appears to be my new hobby – queuing in a socially distant manner for groceries. My record so far is two hours, sigh.
For a relatively simple word, queue has some intriguing historical links to both Irish patriot Wolfe Tone and British statesman Winston Churchill.
Queue entered English in the late 1400s to describe the ribbons around a scrolled letter with seals dangling on the ends. Think of a formal message to a king or noble and you’d be on the right track.
The word was a direct adoption from French queue (tail) which came from Old French cue (tail) which perhaps is a more sensible spelling, but not the one that stuck with us. Cue came to French from Latin coda or cauda, both meaning tail also.
Queue, by the 1500s, was being used for tail in English too, especially for animals in heraldry – the shields and symbols of noble families. Around the same time queue came to describe a line of dancers which by the early 1800s could be a line of people. The idea of a queue being a line of people waiting for something arose in the late 1800s and has been with us ever since.
A queue was also used in hair-styles too. From the 1700s, or possibly earlier, a queue was a braid of hair. In an era when men’s hair was often worn long they might gather it back in a braid for practical reasons, especially in military and naval situations. Sailors, for example, often applied tar to their queues to keep the hair from getting in the way and this was part of the reason why they were nicknamed tars.
Where does Wolfe Tone enter the history of queuing? Theobald Wolfe Tone (1763-1798) was a barrister and founding member of the United Irishmen and a leader of the 1798 Irish rebellion against British rule. He used his contacts in France to gain a supporting fleet from Napoleon but the landings and the rebellion ultimately failed. Many of his writings still exist (three volumes of his writings have been edited by T. W. Moody and R.B. McDowell) and they include his explanation of the French use of the word queue in the late 1700s to describe waiting in a line of people. This is one of the earliest uses of queue with this sense in an English publication and may have given the word to the language.
Wolfe Tone never met Winston Churchill, whose biography I am currently reading, and who also left a lasting impression on Ireland’s path to independence. I suspect Wolfe Tone wouldn’t have approved of Churchill deploying the infamous Black and Tan troops to crush resistance in 1920 or his role as a major negotiator of the 1921 treaty to end the Irish War of Independence which divided the island of Ireland.
Churchill’s vocabulary was vast and he wasn’t adverse to coining a new word when he needed it to destroy his enemy. After World War II his party had been ousted from power by the Labour Party. During the 1950 election campaign he targeted the ongoing post-war austerity overseen by Labour and coined the word queuetopia during a speech in Woodford, Essex claiming that under Labour the country had shortages of nearly everything, leading to long lines, a veritable queuetopia thanks to their socialist ideals.
In case you’re curious, Winston lost in 1950 by a slim margin but when Labour held another election in 1951 to improve their grip on power he claimed victory and Labour were out of power for the next 13 years.
As for me, I’m hoping our current queuetopia eases as soon as it is safe to do so.
Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,