By the end of the 1800s, you already had people start complaining about the ubiquity of line standing—that children were made to stand in lines at school, worrying about how this is draining the life out of people. [The adoption of the line] has to do with the same process of standardization. Look at how cities became built. If you think about older cities, there’s not a lot of central planning that went into them, but in the 1800s, they were like, “Hey, let’s have this novel idea called grids, and have some kind of order.”
There’s also the move into factories around this time, the modern assembly-line process. Workers would have to go in at the same time, clock in, get in line at the factory gates, and punch their time cards. Inside the assembly line, everything is still very linear. These all are things that led to the development of line-standing as a cultural norm in America.
Romm: You write about how the vocabulary used to describe the act affects how it’s perceived—line vs. queue, and even in line vs. on line.
Andrews: Queue is how the British use it, borrowed from the French. Borrowing other people’s insights into this, the British have a verb that one does directly—one queues, the person is a queue-er, queuing—and this kind of lends a more positive connotation. One has agency when one is queuing, because one is actually doing that action. As opposed to being subjected to that action, when one is made to stand in line.
And in line, I think, is how most Americans say it. But I heard you say on line. From what I understand it’s mainly New York and New Jersey, which is something I learned in conversation with my editor. He was like, “You know, we stand on line here.” And I was like, “I’ve never heard that before.”
I’d also note, just my personal preference for being in line versus on line, there’s this idea of visual metaphors in the propositions that we use. No one has done any actual studies on this, this is just my speculation, but standing in line kind of connotes that we are in a closed-off space. One joins the line, gets into the line, as opposed to stands on a line. I think that kind of unites people, there’s a commonality of purpose when people are in line as opposed to on line.
Romm: So being in the same line can help people to form a group identity, in some cases.
Andrews: People have done studies of very long lines. The example I’m thinking of is where they researched the phenomenon of people who would wait in front of movie theaters for weeks in the lead-up to the first Star Wars prequel. People would stand in line for weeks, but you run into certain problems. A person has to eat, they have to get clean clothes, they have to feed their children. So the people who wait in these lines start making arrangements with other people in line, like, “Hey, do you mind holding my place while I run to the McDonald’s across the street?” As people started talking to each other, they would start to form these mini-communities at the front of the line that often excluded the people who would come in much later. If you spend so much time together, you start having in-jokes, you make friends with the people, you learn something about them, while the person who has not spent as much time has to work that much harder to insert himself into the group.