Q: I’ve heard that the phrase “on line” (as opposed to “in line”) originated on Ellis Island. Lines in various colors were painted on the floor, and immigrants were told to “stand on line.” Sounds logical. What do you think?
A: As everybody knows by now, New Yorkers do not think of themselves as being “in line” when they’re part of a queue. They say they’re standing or waiting “on line.”
We’ve written a blog entry about this common New Yorkism, though we didn’t offer any theories as to its origin. The Oxford English Dictionary has no entry for “on line” as used in this sense.
We do know that the usage isn’t exclusive to New York, since dialect scholars have found it in other pockets of the East.
Exactly how “on line” came to be used for “in line” is a mystery to us. But the practice didn’t originate as you suggest, with lines painted on the floor at Ellis Island.
We emailed an expert, Marian Smith, chief of the historical research branch at the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.
“This is one I’ve never heard before!” she replied. “I’m very suspicious since it sounds like so many other stories of events or things that supposedly come from a mythical ‘Ellis Island experience.’ ”
She added that she had never “come across any reference to lines painted on the floor at Ellis Island.”
“At one time there were bars to channel traffic like those at an amusement park today,” she wrote. “At other times they lined the benches up and people scooted along as the line moved. But I’ve never heard or read any mention of lines painted on the floor.”
Ms. Smith noted that one “possible (but unlikely) explanation is that said lines were on the floor at some emigration station, where they were told to stand on a line while boarding the ship to depart.”
“We find many events that supposedly happened at arrival on Ellis actually happened prior to departure, at some point at or between the home and the port of departure,” she said.
Ms. Smith offered one possible explanation of her own about the origin of this usage.
“My own guess would be that if one translates the English ‘wait in line’ into other languages, you’ll find one or more of them translate to ‘wait ON line,’ which likely makes perfect sense in that other language,” she said.
She suggested that the language (or languages) might be “the mother tongue of a very large immigrant group in New York, who’ve imprinted their own translation on the English spoken in one city.”
“Just my guess,” she added. “I know nothing of such things.”
Ms. Smith’s guess sounds reasonable, but we can’t verify it.
For example, in Yiddish, the vernacular language of many Jewish immigrants to New York, “in line” is in rey.
In Italian, there are the phrases mettersi fila (literally, “put oneself in line”) and far fila (“make a line”).
In German, there’s Schlange stehen (literally “stand in a snake”), and in French there’s faire (“to make”) la queue.
Some of our readers have suggested over the years that “wait on line” is grammatically incorrect. Not so. This is a regional usage that’s as idiomatic to New Yorkers as asking for “regular” coffee when they mean coffee with milk.
This issue is reminiscent of another one we’ve dealt with on the blog, “wait on” versus “wait for.” Here’s what we had to say:
“In the sense of ‘await,’ both ‘wait on’ and ‘wait for’ have long histories of usage in English, both in Britain and in the United States. In general, ‘wait for’ is more common, but ‘wait on’ is part of mainstream usage in both countries.”
We’ve also written in a posting that “the choice of preposition (as in ‘wait on line’ versus ‘wait in line,’ or ‘wait on the weather’ versus ‘wait for the weather’) is often idiomatic and does not involve a change in grammatical function.”
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