Cue - queue

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Cue and queue form one of the sets of homophones listed by the then Poet Laureate Robert Bridges.
(For more, see Bridges homophones). AWE has a category listing our articles on each of these. Both cue and queue sound like the (English) name of the letter Q (IPA: /kjuː/), or the place name Kew. Both cue and queue can be noun and verb.

  • The noun 'a cue' has distinct meanings in current English.
    • One meaning is a signal to an actor, or musician, to start an action or a speech (on stage), or to play, either a piece (during, for example, a play) or a specific musical action. Such signals are usually built into the text being followed: an actor's cue may be the words at the end ('tail', or queue in French) of another actor's words, or a sound effect from off stage, etc. This has been extended to film and broadcasting performances; and in everyday life can mean 'a hint' or 'stimulus [to action or speech]': 'The loss of Stalingrad was the cue for another of Hitler's rages'.
    • A cue is also the name of the tapering stick with which pool, billiards and snooker are played. The cue ball is the one that the player may legitimately strike with the cue. The cue was originally limited to the tapered end of the billard, or 'whole stick' in French.
    • 'To cue' is 'to provide the signal for an actor', or describes the stroke-making of a snooker or billiards player: 'he cues with great delicacy'. 'To miscue' (or 'make a mis-cue') is to fail to strike the ball cleanly, or to strike it so that it moves in an unintended direction. This can be used figuratively to mean a mistake (in any field of activity) that fails to produce the intended result, such as an intended joke that goes off at half cock, gives offence rather than amusement etc.

'Queue' is a word that can give spelling problems: a mnemonic that has worked in classrooms is to say the letters rapidly: 'queue - you-ee-you-ee' (/kjuː juː iː juː iː/).

  • A queue is, in current English, 'a line of people, or vehicles, etc, waiting for a turn'. This is usually seen at bus stops, in busy shops, or other sales outlets, or for information or some similar service. Vehicles form queues at traffic lights, road junctions, or at some blockage or restriction on a road. In American English, this is called 'a line', and people 'wait in line'. When the British say "Form a[n orderly] queue", Americans say "Get in line"
    • In computer programming, a queue is a collection of data items, or commands, etc stored in a particular order so that they may be retrieved in a useful way. Specifically, a computer queue is a FIFO (First-In-First-Out) data structure, which should be distinguished from a 'stack', which is also a data structure, but one in which the most recently added item is the first to be removed - a LIFO (Last-In-First-Out) data structure.
    • A queue can also be, in historical documents, 'a pigtail' - the single bunch of hair worn at the nape of the neck. The transitive verb 'to queue' in such contexts means 'to tie, or form, a pigtail'.
    • OED records several other archaic meanings of queue, mostly related to its root, the French queue, or 'tail' (of an animal etc). This is a descendant of the Latin cauda, which also yielded the Italian coda, a term used in music to mean 'the concluding passage of a piece of music'. Sometimes this is an improvisation added by a soloist to complete a bravura display of skill, sometimes it is little more than an extended cadence.
  • 'To queue' is 'to wait in line', 'to form a queue'.
  • Queuing theory is a branch of mathematics which seeks to understand the movement of people or things through queues and similar systems, such as convoys, conveyor belts and traffic jams.
The distinction between cue and queue outlined here shows the best modern practice. Nevertheless, it should be noticed that in Early Modern English and before, the two spellings were interchangeable for all meanings - and those derived from the name of the letter Q. This is because their etymologies are the same, although the detail is confused and often unclear.
See also curlicue.