Cue vs. Queue

By Maeve Maddox

The first time I read the following passage, I thought the use of the word queue must be arcane computer science jargon, but when I read it a second time, I realized the spelling queue in this context was just a mistake:

This happens to be one of our common gripes: that once the battery is end-of-life, we are pretty much forced to get a replacement unit since the battery takes a queue from Apple and is sealed inside the casing.

The passage is from a product review. The writer is criticizing the fact that the consumer cannot replace the tool’s battery because, like the batteries in some Apple devices, it’s sealed. The tool’s manufacturers have “taken their cue” from Apple.

Take one’s cue: use someone else’s behavior as a model for one’s own.

The mistaken use of queue for cue was a new one for me, so I did a web search to see if this reviewer had company. He has plenty of company. And don’t pounce on the Americans; the misuse is global. I found examples on sites in the U.K., Australia, and Jamaica, as well as in the U.S. and in at least one printed book.

Deron is on half speed one game, full speed another game. Everyone else takes their queue from that.

Telstra are dead in the water. Hopefully the .au government takes their queue and busts it in half.

The populace takes their queue from people of influence who are either silent on the matter…[or] are outrightly vocalising their contempt…

If the bride and groom are uptight and nervous the whole wedding takes their queue from them. 

Cue and queue are both pronounced like the name of the letter Q.

Queue, a French borrowing with the literal meaning of “tail,” is sometimes spelled cue in the context of hair: cue/queue: A long roll or plait of hair worn hanging down behind like a tail, from the head or from a wig; a pigtail.

The expression “to take one’s cue” is from the figurative use of a theatrical term:

cue: The concluding word or words of a speech in a play, serving as a signal or direction to another actor to enter, or begin his speech.

The OED lists several historical spellings of cue in the sense of an actor’s signal, but the list does not include the spelling queue:

kew, ku, quew, q, quue, que, Q, qu, kue.

The word is spelled cue in A Midsummer’s Dream (1600); Bottom the Weaver is bossing his fellow actors:

Curst be thy stones, for thus deceiuing mee. [deceiving me]. Deceiuing mee is Thisbyes cue: she is to enter now, and I am to spy Her through the wall.

In British usage, a queue is a line of people or vehicles waiting to proceed or be served.

In computer use, a queue is a list of data items or commands that are attended to in a certain order, such as a queue of documents waiting to be printed.

Next time you have occasion to write the expression “take one’s cue,” take your cue from this article and remember to spell it cue.

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2 Responses to “Cue vs. Queue”

  • Dale A. Wood

    The situation is even worse than what is described above.
    I have seen the word “queueing” (or “queuing”) misspelled as “cueing” and the word “queued” misspelled as “cued”.

    Some people give “queueing” as an example of a word in English that has five consecutive vowels, but most of the time, people just spell it “queuing”.

    As examples of the bad usage: “People are cueing up at the front door of the theater,” and “People have cued up at the bank teller’s window because there is a rush on cash money.” Ugh.
    In the technical fields of computers and telecommunications, I have also seen the word “queuing” misspelled as “cueing”.
    There is a whole mathematical theory that is used in data processing and telecommunictions, and this is called “Queuing Theory.” The “Bible” of this field is a book named QUEUING, and I believe that it was written by Leonard Kleinrock. He is one of those Americans who has been awarded the Presidential Medal of Science and made a member of the National Academy of Sciences because of his contributions to the above fields, and especially the Internet.
    For example, the crucial machine called a “router” is designed using queuing theory to make it run efficiently.
    D.A.W.

  • venqax

    You would think the British would make the mistake less often because the term queue isn’t commonly used in America. We stand and wait in line, get in line, line up. An instruction to get in a queue (?) would just elicit puzzlement and chaos– probably the opposite of the instruction’s purpose.

    A further mistake in spelling what sounds like the letter Q is in the (probably uniquely) American spelling of “barbeque” where QUE must be pronounced as cue/queue. Of course anyone familiar with the fantastic cuisine knows the proper spelling is BAR-B-Q (all caps optional) 🙂

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