"wait/stand on line" in the UK?

Chris Waigl chris at LASCRIBE.NET
Sun Nov 30 00:17:56 UTC 2008

On 29 Nov 2008, at 17:47, Arnold Zwicky wrote:
> a correspondent writes:
> I've noticed in the Black Friday coverage lots of comments from
> shoppers about waiting "on line" for several hours, a construction
> I've noticed several times in the past few years. Growing up in the
> midwest I always said I was waiting IN line; I was unfamiliar with the
> "on line" construction until I lived in the UK.
> .....
> i replied that "wait/stand on line" is a famous feature of NYC speech,
> and that i hadn't seen reports of it from the UK.  i also suggested
> that the Black Friday coverage with "wait on line" in it originated in
> NYC.
> but does anyone have sightings of the expression in the UK (except
> from people who grew up in NYC or very close to it)?

I haven't heard it at all in the UK. In the (many) casual
conversations I've only ever heard some variant of "queue" or "queue
up", except of course from non-British speakers.

A Google search on the .co.uk domain doesn't bear it out either.
There's a fair number of instances of "stand/wait in line", which
after all is readily understood in the UK, too  (it isn't as if it was
based on some obscure metaphor). In the UK press, my guess would be
that the "in line" usage comes from a mix of

- re-using material originally US written sources
- interviewing Americans (and re-using some of their vocabulary)
- alternating between "queue" and "line" to avoid monotony
- newspapers using reporters with personal links to the US to report
on US topics

But again, it's *in* line, not *on*.

For the anecdote, there was a BBC report from some US city on election
day in which the journalist interviewed a woman who had provided
portable toilets for her waiting fellow-voters. During the interview,
both rather self-consciously started accommodating the other's
unfamiliar vocabulary: the journalist by switching from "queue" to
("as you call it") "line", and the interviewee by switching from
"portapotty" to ("how did you say?") "loo".

Chris Waigl

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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