President Obama was in London on Friday, where he delivered a passionate plea to Britain to vote to remain in the European Union in an upcoming referendum.
The American leader's intervention in the country's fierce "Brexit" row has proven remarkably divisive in London, with some politicians attacking him for being "anti-British" and others suggesting that Obama's part-Kenyan heritage led to an "ancestral dislike of the British empire."
Obama was apparently not fazed. During a joint news conference with Britain's David Cameron on Friday afternoon, he offered a stern warning of the potential consequences for the transatlantic relationship should Britain leave the E.U. However, it wasn't just Obama's warnings that gained attention among the Brits – it was a subtle stylistic shift in the way he worded those warnings.
“I think it’s fair to say maybe some point down the line, but it’s not going to happen any time soon because our focus is on negotiating with the E.U.,” Obama told reporters. “The U.K. is going to be at the back of the queue.”
Obama was simply repeating a warning made before by U.S. officials: that the U.S. is not interested in bilateral trade deals with individual countries, and that they would focus instead on deals with larger organizations like the E.U. However, the president's choice of words when making this point left many gobsmacked. gob·smacked ˈɡäbˌsmakt/
utterly astonished; astounded. -- [JB insertion in text]
The president of the United States had used the word "queue," typically used by Brits, rather than "line," considered the proper term in American English.
Some Brits quickly grew suspicious – was Obama pandering to his audience with this Britishism? Or was this a secret sign that someone British had been helping him craft his speech?
Okay, it's certainly true that queue is used relatively rarely in American English: As the Oxford English Dictionary says in its listing for the word, it is a "chiefly British" word. But this isn't exactly a smoking gun. As James Ball of Buzzfeed UK was quick to point out on Twitter, Obama has actually used the word "queue" a number of times before.
You can see it in this White House transcript from 2010, for example, when Obama says: "There were several people who were still in the queue who didn’t have a chance to speak prior to us breaking." Or in another transcript from 2011, when he says: "Could I just say that Chuck is the only guy who asked two questions — so far. So just — when I cut off here, whoever was next in the queue — I’m messing with you, Chuck." Or in yet another transcript from two years after that, when he says: "We’ve got to make sure that we have a legal immigration system that doesn’t cause people to sit in the queue for 5 years, 10 years, 15 years — in some cases, 20 years."
The instances of Obama using "queue" do seem relatively rare, but they exist and they appear to be off-the-cuff comments. And importantly, in none of the above examples was the president being used to trick British people to not act in their own interest. In fact, Obama has something of a habit of using British English. According to "Britishisms," a blog run by University of Delaware English Prof. Ben Yagoda with the aim of catching the British English that enters into American daily life, the president has also been caught saying things like "full stop," "run to ground" and "take a decision." Why would Obama be keen on British English? Well, you could probably make an argument that it comes from his father, who spoke English with a British accent. Additionally, for years people have noted that Obama's use of language tends to shift depending on his audience – it's certainly plausible that on Friday, he was subconsciously placating those worried about Britain's sovereignty with the use of some British English. Or perhaps it was simply an attempt to sound fancy.
He may also be a fan of Netflix. Yes, in 2014 the New Republic warned that "Americans have started saying 'queue,' " because of the popular movie-and-television subscription service, which uses the word to refer to a playlist. To some that may sound like rubbish, but there are plenty of other signs that British English is seeping into American English more and more regularly.
A Princeton PhD, was a US diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. For the Open World Leadership Center, he speaks with
its delegates from Europe/Eurasia on the topic, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" (http://johnbrownnotesandessays.blogspot.com/2017/03/notes-and-references-for-discussion-e.html). Affiliated with Georgetown University (http://explore.georgetown.edu/people/jhb7/) for over ten years, he shares ideas with students about public diplomacy.
The papers of his deceased father -- poet and diplomat John L. Brown -- are stored at Georgetown University Special Collections at the Lauinger Library. They are manuscript materials valuable to scholars interested in post-WWII U.S.-European cultural relations.
This blog is dedicated to him, Dr. John L. Brown, a remarkable linguist/humanist who wrote in the Foreign Service Journal (1964) -- years before "soft power" was ever coined -- that "The CAO [Cultural Affairs Officer] soon comes to realize that his job is really a form of love-making and that making love is never really successful unless both partners are participating."