New Yorkers have been on line since before there was online—for nearly a century, at least.
They are so prominently on line, in fact, that those of us in the hinterland know it’s a way to identify New Yorkers by the way they talk. Not by their pronunciation, but by their words. If instead of waiting in line or standing in line, you wait or stand on line, you must be from New York—the city, that is, and neighboring New Jersey.
That fact is confirmed by the recent Dictionary of American Regional English. The entry for on line in Volume 3 identifies New York City and northern New Jersey as the area where people say they’re waiting or standing on line.
The earliest evidence in that dictionary is from 1958, but on line wasn’t new even then. Google Ngrams provides published examples of New York on line going back as far as the 1920s. For example, here’s an ad in a 1927 issue of The Soda Fountain:
“If you sell checks before service, install an Under Counter Style Gold Seal in the cashier’s cage and you’ll never have people waiting on line. The New GOLD SEAL Soda Check Register is an electrically operated cash register. … ”
And from a report of the 1938 New York constitutional convention:
“The viewpoint of many of these was best illustrated by the remark of one of them who, while waiting on line to receive her diploma, said, ‘Today I am a sweet girl graduate, tomorrow I will be on WPA.’”
Exactly when New Yorkers began their distinctive waiting and standing hasn’t been studied much, as far as I know. Their on line version isn’t even mentioned in the Oxford English Dictionary or Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged. But in any case, it’s clear that waiting on line has been current among New Yorkers for a long time.
This is old news. So why am I writing about it now?
Well, I think New Yorkers will soon give it up and fall in line with the rest of America. Waiting on line isn’t fit for the 21st century.
Why? It’s the computer.
Thanks to computers, we’re online everywhere now, not just in New York City. And that means, if a New Yorker says she or he is waiting on line, it might be in a computer queue instead of a pedestrian one.
In line remains distinctive. If you’re waiting in line, you’re afoot. With on line, though, you can’t be sure.
True, you may have noticed that I’ve been writing on line as two words for the whole-body version, and online as one word for the computer. But people aren’t so careful in their spelling, and anyhow there’s no difference when you say it.
So give it up, New Yorkers! Get in line … behind the rest of us.
Allan Metcalf - His website is allanmetcalf.com.