Cue vs. queue

A cue is (1) a signal prompting an event or action, especially in a performance; and (2) the long stick used to strike the cue ball in billiards and pool. The word also works as a verb meaning give a cue. A queue is (1) a line of people waiting for something, and (2) a hair braid worn down the back of the neck. As a verb, queue means get in line or place in line. Both these homophones are often used with upcue up meaning prepare [something] to start on cue, and queue up meaning get in line. 

Queue is rare in American English. And when American writers use it, it’s sometimes spelled cue—for example:

A younger brother, Garret, is also in the cue. [Our Colorado News]

The musicians cueing up to salute Paul McCartney at MusiCares were nervous enough about doing justice to their hero’s classics. [USA Today]

But we find very few such instances of this use of cue in carefully edited news publications, and those we do find are from quoted text, letters, and comments. The edited publications generally use queue, though the word is seen less often than synonyms such as line. For what it’s worth, among the many dictionaries we checked, only the American Heritage Dictionary lists cue as a variant of queue.

Examples

Then there’s that impressive skill set: barking, whimpering and rolling over on cue. [Wall Street Journal]

There’s a queue every lunchtime outside a particular eaterie in London’s West End, waiting with varying degrees of patience for sandwiches. [Telegraph]

He cued up Mr. Gingrich’s theme music, “Only in America,” by Brooks & Dunn. [New York Times]

There was chaos at Phuket airport today as passengers queued to try to get on alternative flights … [Sydney Morning Herald]

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