Queue has such a strange spelling (80% of it is vowels!) that I wanted to see where the word came from. I searched for its origin at Etymonline.com, which had this to say:

queue (n.): late 15c., "band attached to a letter with seals dangling on the free end," from French queue, "a tail," from Old French cue, coe "tail"...

I had assumed that cue came after queue in an attempt to simplify the spelling, but according to this, cue came first. However, I can't find any explanation for how the Old French cue became the French queue. Where did that spelling come from, and why was it preferred over the more straightforward cue?

  • The spellings "ue" and "eue" generally represent different sounds in modern French spelling. – sumelic Mar 31 '16 at 14:31

French queue comes from Latin coda (also spelled cauda) which designated the appendage that prolongs the spinal column. It was spelled cue, coe or even keue in Old French and only started being spelled queue in the 12th century. Spelling was no fixed in those days.

The English borrowed the word after the French had adopted the present spelling *queue, first to mean a "long roll or plait of hair worn hanging down behind like a tail" and later the billiard stick. I gather the Old French spelling is just a coincidence and that the English spelling is a restitution of the word. What's interesting is that in English both spellings, "queue" and "cue" coexist.

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    The question is, "Where did that spelling come from, and why was it preferred over the more straightforward cue?" Your answer is, just, "It ... started being spelled queue in the 12th century." – ChrisW Dec 22 '14 at 2:22
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    @ChrisW My answer is : "spelling was not fixed in those days". The why is in only speculation. If you want to speculate you can say that the spelling was fixed according to the pronunciation. The pronunciation /kø/ corresponds to the spelling queue ; in French cue is be pronounced /ky/. – None Dec 22 '14 at 6:53
  • @ChrisW And the question is about etymology: "Etymology of “queue” from “cue” ". If OP didn't want an answer about etymolgy, then their question is badly phrased. – None Dec 22 '14 at 7:45

My guess it that spelling it "cue" would suggest it ought to be pronounced like "k" + "u" ... so "cue" is the wrong spelling for that pronunciation.

"ce" doesn't work because that's a soft "c" pronounced like "se".

"que" almost works but it's a short "euh", and also "que" is already used for a different word.

So to make it a long "euh" after "qu", it's "qu"+"eu".

But it's feminine (perhaps because Latin "cauda" from which it's derived is feminine), hence the terminal "e" i.e. "qu"+"eu"+"e".

There's an interesting Wikipedia article on the history of French spelling.

Based on that, if I recall correctly, "Old French" was spelled more-or-less according to how it was pronounced; but pronunciation (and spelling) varied from region to region.

There were later/subsequent deliberate/scholarly efforts to ensure that:

  • Spelling matches pronunciation
  • Spelling rules are more-or-less consistent
  • Spelling (e.g. silent latters) help to suggest words' Latin etymologies

So it's not impossible that "cue" was a natural spelling, and became "queue" as a more precise spelling.


Anglo-Norman origins

Usually, this is attributed to the 12th century anglo-norman Chanson de Roland (text; easy text):

[1488]Li arcevesque cumencet la bataille.
Siet el cheval qu'il tolit a Grossaille,
Ço ert uns reis qu'l ocist en Denemarche.
Li destrers est e curanz e aates,
Piez ad copiez e les gambes ad plates,
Curte la quisse e la crupe bien large,
Lungs les costez e l'eschine ad ben halte,
Blanche la cue e la crignete jalne

Petites les oreilles, la teste tute falve;
Beste nen est nule ki encontre lui alge.
Li arcevesque brochet par tant grant vasselage:
Ne laisserat qu'Abisme nen asaillet;
Vait le ferir en l'escut amiracle:


So this cue comes from the Latin cauda/coda. This is most probably pronunced like a k. The two forms sound basically like kao-da vs. koda with some variation. In latin words beginning with the letter q are quite common I think, and mostly always followed with u. The pronunciation may(kw) or may not be different. What I imagine is they saw that and have some Scandinavian, Norman influences, so did they have some natural cue about that pronunciation? Or did they just try to copy it, especially if Latin was well perceived a language or historically relevant to some? Furthermore, maybe you have something akin to a preposition such as de, and then you would have had something like a koede de cheval for ponytail, which would be really aggravating. If you were to drop or shorten the last syllable, you would be left with cau/co; so how does a Norman language deal with that?? I speculate they must have transliterated it from Latin directly and dropped the last part, and eventually that was rejected - in French. It seems in Norman quisse was how cuisse is prononced today in French, so it's that kw sound, very much like qu in latin I suspect, again. You can't make queue with cue phonetically in French unless you were to rely on something else...

Systematic construction

In the Historical section of this article in the Littré on queue, you see the Chanson example, then followed by examples with cöe(see also Trésor). Right away cue is gone, and it's now coe, a bit like coeur but without the last sound? Maybe that would have been slightly confusing? And ultimately what about cueillir, recueuil etc.... it becomes a bit crowded. So listen again to the Chanson: Rolans sis niez me coillit en haür. This "cueillir" is also quite different from modern French. So surely it was adapted for something that sounded different. And then all this disappears in the 15th. So it seems like it was idiomatic or somehow just worked phonetically in English, but didn't compute with what French was becoming in the 15th.

Norman influence(s) and Old French generally

Normal language&history

Aside from the political influence Normandy exerted at a specific period in time, there is also value in briefly stating the historical context where the Norman language expresses itself initially:

Les nouveaux venus[anglo-scandinavian settlers, so maybe also this] vont exercer sur la langue vernaculaire une influence limitée de substrat, notamment sur le vocabulaire (200 mots tout au plus, issus du norrois ou du vieil anglais cf. tableau I) et de manière plus anecdotique sur la phonétique.

This is just to show that generally some influences can carry other interferences over and that the ensuing result varies; how language changes may not be something linear or grounded on a specific mission; there might be opportunity, randomness, normative instruments, and of course history.

Old French

From the wikipedia article:

[...] si l'ancien français s'écrit presque comme il se prononce, les graphies deviennent très vite archaïsantes. Par exemple, doté de nombreuses diphtongues, il les représente directement : /eu/ se lit donc [ew] et /oi/ [oj]. Mais les graphies restent figées alors que la prononciation continue d'évoluer: /eu/ vaut [ew] au XIe siècle mais [œu] au XIIe siècle et [œ] à partir du XIIIe siècle sans que la graphie ne change réellement. [...]

En conclusion, il convient de comprendre que l'ancien français possède une orthographe quasi-phonétique pratiquée avec un alphabet qui ne s'y prête pas forcément, ce qui explique l'abondance de graphies parallèles et les diverses solutions plus ou moins efficaces, tels les digrammes, mais, surtout, dès que les prémices de l'orthographe, au sens actuel, font leur apparition : l'écriture est en retard sur la prononciation mais permet, par l'adoption de conventions, une meilleure reconnaissance des constituants des mots.

Synthèse [...] la lecture des diphtongues graphiques est complexe car les diphtongues prononcées ont évolué beaucoup plus vite que la graphie. On pourra retenir comme règle de lecture acceptable que les diphtongues se sont monophtonguées après le XIIe siècle (passant soit à une combinaison semi-consonne + voyelle soit à une voyelle seule. Retenir aussi que oi se lit /we/ ou /wɛ/ et ue comme eu /œ/ ou /ø/ ;

A. So was there ever a motivation to make words more "straightforward" etc?1 I just think the French language asserted herself, in time, to find solutions on its own terms so to speak, so that the "system" would work. And then at some point in the 15th it stabilized in some respects, like explained in this Q&As, with indeed less reliance in this very case on that original latin anglo-norman construction for cue.

1. Take the word hue in English which is shorter than color, and from the same era; yet the latter is what is casually used today(maybe that's a ticket for a Q. on ELU.).

  • Interesting but highly speculative. Thank you. – user3177 Mar 31 '16 at 21:57

According to the OED cue, where it means either a plait of hair, or a billiard cue, is just a variant spelling of the French queue, which means tail.

Where cue means a prompt given in the theatre, that particular use of the word has an unknown etymology.

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    The question is: why is it spelled "queue" in French? – ChrisW Dec 20 '14 at 0:19

what about from hebrew root qawah? meaning to wait There are forms where the first vowel is /i/ or /I/.

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    Do you have any reasons other than a superficial similarity to justify that etymology? – Un francophone Mar 29 '16 at 14:49
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    -1 : If you delete your answer with 3 negative votes, you earn a 'Peer Pressure' badge :) – Personne Mar 31 '16 at 9:29
  • I don't think such word exists in Hebrew. There is a slang word that qualifies, buy it is not proper Hebrew. – CIsForCookies Apr 4 '20 at 23:34

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