À la queue leu leu
The poetry of those words! They are a favorite of preschoolers. But you will also hear them in the long lines of traffic that characterize French life during strike season - which invariably coincides with the holiday season. However, it is most often associated with happy occasions and the song of the same name. You will hear the song played around France at the end of every festive event from New Year’s Eve to weddings, when even the most staid and stuffy gets a little tipsy, and everyone ends up snaking around the room in a merry conga line.
À la queue leu leu means in a single file, one after another, whether litterally or figuratively. It is synonymous with en file indienne - in Indian line - which offers a nice visual but not much of an excuse for chanting on top of one's lungs.
Which begs the question: who came up with à la queue leu leu? A circle of kindergarten poets? A Sunday rapper in desperate need of alliterations?
We have to go further back in time to find out. It all started in the 11th century: in old French, you could happily do without an article. That is how à la queue leu leu is short for "à la queue du leu le leu". In other words: "At the tail of the leu is the leu." Still a tad obscure, you might think. Everything becomes clearer when you know that le leu was old French for le loup - the wolf. The expression's original meaning is therefore at the tail of the wolf (is) a(nother) wolf.
As everyone knows, wolves travel one behind another, with an alpha male in front cutting a path for the rest of the pack. In winter, moving through the snow in this manner saves energy for everyone behind. It is also a strategy observed in most mammals and other species, from birds to caterpillars. The leader is believed to know where to go and be better apt at detecting danger.
Wolves once roamed in large numbers throughout Europe and held a special place in popular culture. They were mostly feared, as we can see in many children’s tales - hence their near extinction in the 19th century. It is therefore quite likely that the original expression might have been a warning, as in: "Beware, a wolf might hide another wolf!" So much for an invitation to get silly and dance.
Dans le passé, les enfants devaient être à la queue leu leu pour entrer dans leurs salles de classe.
In the past, children had to line up to enter their classrooms.
Le pont est étroit. Nous devons nous mettre à la queue leu leu pour le traverser.
The bridge is narrow. We have to cross it one behind the other.
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