A few days ago I had to ring a government department. I hate ringing government departments, but I couldn’t find anything on their website about this particular issue. The call took an hour and 44 minutes in total, being about one minute talking to the first person, about one minute talking to the second person who the first person put me through to, about three minutes talking to the third person who the second person put me through to, and about an hour and 39 minutes listening to ‘on hold’ music, announcements about the information I could find on the website, and automated recordings telling me that I was now the [number]th caller in the queue, starting from 59th between the first person and the second person, and 68th between the second and the third and gradually counting down.
I mentioned this on Facebook, and one online friend who lives in another English-speaking country commented, using the spelling que three times in an otherwise perfectly written comment. I sent her a private message asking whether that was her usual spelling, or was widely used in her English-speaking country.
The more I investigated, the murkier this all got. There’s the letter Q, the theatrical cue, the billiards cue and the waiting queue, and some of those are related, but not in ways you might expect. The letter Q and the theatrical cue are related, but spelled differently, as are the billiards cue and the waiting queue. The theatrical cue and the billiards cue are not related, but spelled the same.
The theatrical cue was originally the letter Q or the abbreviation qu (standing for the Latin quando, when), written into the script, but when it became used as a word, they needed a spelling. The billiards cue and the waiting queue are both from Latin cauda, cōda, tail, via Old French coe, coue, cue and French queue. Somehow, the billiards cue, the later usage, uses the older spelling and the waiting queue, the earlier usage, uses the newer one. In both cases, it was used as a noun first, and a verb later. Merriam-Webster online also gives a second definition of (billiards) cue: QUEUE 2 – that is, that enough spell the waiting queue as cue for it to be listed in a major dictionary without comment. I have never encountered it that way.* Further, queue can be used for a braid of hair, which I have also never encountered – in Australian English we would say plait(s). [See segue’s comment below, for which thanks.] [*PS I suspect that the reverse never happens – people just don’t use queue when writing about theatrical prompters or actors, or billiards.]
Meanwhile, Que(.) can be an abbreviation for Quebec (M-W doesn’t give a pronunciation; maybe it’s only ever written) or Spanish qué, what. Dictionary.com also gives “Chiefly California. barbecue”, which depends a bit on one’s spelling of barbecue/barbeque (and/or bar-be-que/bar-b-que/bar-be-cue/bar-b-cue, also bbq but not bbc. Enough students for me to notice say “b-b-q”.) (Barbecue is the more common spelling, but Australia’s largest retailer of leisure goods uses barbeque in its brand name.)
My online friend messaged back saying, in part “I tend to use que as a shortcut for queue online” in the same way that many people use many abbreviations and acronyms online. “I don’t know why, either. I’m usually extremely picky about spelling.”
Along the way, I also found curlicue and curlycue, but curlique seems to be used only for hairdressing salons and products.
PS Having thought about it rather too much over the last few days, I can’t help thinking that nothing would be lost and something would be gained by spelling the waiting queue as que. Somehow, I just can’t bring myself to do it.