Saturday, November 03, 2007

the floor

Since Better Half and I both lived with each other's dialects for some time before meeting each other, there aren't too many times when our linguistic differences get us into trouble. But one thing that hasn't stopped confusing me is when he calls the ground outside the floor. For instance, we might be walking along the (BrE) pavement/(AmE) sidewalk and he'll say "Mind the poo on the floor there" or "Look at all the chewing gum on the floor!" (He's just come up with those two examples himself, reminding me of my mother's recurrent surprise at the 'uncleanliness' of England. Of course, my mother lives in a small town in a rural area in the US, so her comparisons to cities in England aren't really fair.)

Anyhow, BH's exclamations about things on the floor almost always knock me for a loop, because to me the floor is something inside a building. Of course, in AmE I can also talk about the forest floor, but I think of that as being a very speciali{s/z}ed usage; it doesn't just mean the ground in the forest, it means all the ferns and mosses and things that one finds on the ground in a forest. Similarly for the ocean floor--to me, it's about an ecosystem, not just a surface.

I've asked various BrE-speaking friends whether they use floor to mean ground, and their replies have been mixed. (But it also should be said that I usually don't think that asking people whether they say X is a very productive or accurate way of finding out if they say X. What we do when speaking is a largely subconscious process, and when we reflect on that process, all sorts of things, not least ideas about how we 'should' speak, get in the way.) Looking in the OED, I find that it lists the sense 'the ground' as obsolete, except in dialects.

Now, as a Saaff Lundun boy descended of a long line of South Londoners, I kind of doubt that BH is hanging on to some old ways that the OED compilers thought of as 'dialectal'. So, my hypothesis is that this usage has been re-introduced to the general language through cricket. (This would contribute to explaining why BH uses it more than most of my girlfriends.) As the OED notes, floor is the ground of a cricket ground--that is to say, the dirt/grass part of the cricket field (too many senses of ground in that last clause). So, the OED also lists
to put a catch on the floor as a colloquial way to say 'to fail to hold a catch' in cricket.

I was reminded of the whole floor issue while watching the quiz celebrating Channel 4's 25th anniversary last night. (For certain reasons, I'm watching way too much television lately.) They showed a clip of a program(me) in which Derren Brown gets 'normal' people to hold up an armo(u)red bank car. And in that, in the out-of-doors, the robber demands that the bank guy get 'down on the floor' (i.e. on the street/road). You can see a clip from that (BrE) programme/(AmE) show here on YouTube, but to hear people saying floor, skip to about 7:24. Here, of course, there's the possibility that the speakers have been affected by seeing lots of dramati{s/z}ed robberies that take place inside banks, and so the thing that one says in that condition is Get down on the floor. But it still sounds really unnatural to me--I can't help but think that I'd say Get down on the ground. Next time I rob an armo(u)red vehicle, I'll have to have someone tape me.

So--can you refer to the surface of a road as the floor?

39 comments:

ally said...

I'd never use 'floor' to mean 'ground', except the specific examples you gave (ocean; forest). I'm a BrE speaker, and I know nowt about cricket... :)

lilymarlene said...

I (Brit) would also say "ground" rather than "floor" when outside. But I don't think I'd blink if someone else said "floor". It is just a way of saying ground level.

Doug Chaplin said...

I think the use of "floor" for outside "ground" is unusual. I can't off-hand recall hearing it or using it. I would say the cricket use is confined to the idea of dropping a catch, or just catching it fractionally above ground level. It matches, in that sense, several other colloquial uses of floor. "Pushing one's foot to the floor" is depressing the accelerator of a car right down ("pedal to the metal"), or "flooring a plane" is crashing one - and there are a variety of uses of floor for ground-level in aeronautical language. We also, off course have the metaphorical use (possibly from boxing?)of "I'm floored" meaning completely defeated, baffled etc by a problem or question. But I would still find your partner's use idiosyncratic.

marek said...

I would use "ground" rather than "floor" in the examples in your first para and any like them.

Don't overestimate the power of cricket. As a BrE speaker with a passing knowledge of cricket, but no particular interest in it, this is the first time I have ever heard the word "floor" being used in a special cricket sense. So I don't think it is anywhere near powerful enough a source to provide a route back to a much more generic usage in the way you describe.

My wild guess (and it is very definitely that) is that this is an example of class/education based inverted delicacy - a pair like others in the u/non-u division: napkin/serviette; what/pardon etc.

Anonymous said...

I'm surprised all these Brits saying they wouldn't say floor. Maybe it is a London/SE thing? I'm an American transplanted to London about 10 years ago, and this is one of my very few remaining pet peeves of Br/E. It bugs me beyond reason. So I'm very aware of it. And I do hear it fairly often.

John Cowan said...

My daughter, who has always lived in NYC, has always said "floor" for "ground", but I think of that as just one of those cute survivals from childhood.

lynneguist said...

OK, but for those of you saying that it's very rare to say floor to mean 'ground', how do you explain several people doing it independently in the Derren Brown program(me)?

I have a feeling that a lot of BrE speakers do use it in a less-than-conscious way. If asked what floor meant, they'd refer to the building sense, and if asked what that thing is that you stand on outside, they'd say ground. But when speaking of something falling onto ground level, etc., floor might creep in. This kind of thing happens because when you ask people to think about how they use the word, they think about its prototypical use--which isn't even the same thing as its most frequent use. For example, ask someone what run means and they'll talk about fast locomotion, but it's far more frequent for the word to mean something like 'manage' or 'function'. So, that comes back to my statement in the post that I don't usually trust how people say they use words. I'd rather observe them and get evidence. But then at the end I asked you how you use the word, either because I can't follow you around with a tape recorder and get more direct evidence, or because I'm a sad, lonely person who wants lots of comments on her blog entries.

Marek, what evidence do you have that this is a U/non-U thing? (I didn't tell you the class status of the people involved, so what assumptions are you making?) Also, if you would use ground rather than floor and don't follow cricket, then I don't see how that contradicts the hypothesis that cricket-following people like BH who say floor for ground might've got it from cricket. If they hear it used that way more than you do, then the hypothesis would predict that they'd be more likely to use it that way than you would. Right?

dearieme said...

As the years have rolled by I have noticed "floor" changing from being a slangy metaphor for the ground to being the noun preferred by the, um, oh hell, spit it out man, the uneducated and tin-eared.

Anonymous said...

I'm American (Californian) and I tend to say floor for ground. I also tend to say roof for ceiling, which bothers people. I recall hearing floor for ground for the first time when I was about 8 or 9 years old, spoken on the playground by a friend. I remember it only because I found it strange-- we were playing kickball outside and he instructed me to 'roll the ball on the floor'. However, I too was speaking like that before too long. That was many years ago and I still have this tendency. I've never heard anyone else say it though after childhood.

lynneguist said...

dearieyou, I must take issue with you calling my husband uneducated and tin-eared. That's just not polite--and not true.

david banoff said...

I'm also a Californian and I can't recall ever hearing floor used to refer to the surface outdoors. I also don't follow cricket.

marek said...

If I had had evidence, I wouldn't have called it a wild guess, so I really don't want to claim too much - all I can offer is that if I play it in my head, it has some of the same overtones. So I am not making any assumptions about social class of the people you are talking about, I am making a generalisation about the people I have come across who use floor in this way.

On the cricket causality, my claim was not that nobody says 'floor' in the outdoor sense, it was that, as it happens, I don't. I agree that there are people are do, and my sense is that there are more such people than can be explained by cricket. I may not be a great fan of the game, but I am familiar with many of its highly specialised words, I occasionally listen to cricket commentaries on the radio, and I have friends who are much more interested in cricket than I am. Despite all that, the cricket usage of 'floor' is new to me. My conclusion from that is not that nobody has ever adopted the outdoor sense of floor from cricket (and clearly people who are familiar with the cricket sense may have some propensity to do so), it is that it is an unlikely line of causation for more general usage, particularly given what I know of people I have come across who do use floor in the broader outdoor sense.

pussreboots said...

"So--can you refer to the surface of a road as the floor?"

Not here. The surface of the road is the bed (as in road bed).

lynneguist said...

Puss, you'll need to say where 'here' is.

Thanks for the clarifications, Marek.

jhm said...

I agree with L on how odd this use of 'floor' is to my ear. Not to insist that language must be consistent, but what would one think if the elevator stopped on the 'floor floor/at floor level?'

I have to disagree slightly, in that I don't think that I would include 'floor' or 'ground' in a "mind/look out for the x on the ground," in the examples given (acknowledging that they were 'made-up' so to speak). I think that I would only mention the locus if it were somehow unusual or ambiguous.

dearieme said...

Oh bugger. Apologies - I must have a tin eye. Your husband. Oops. Apology repeated.

Distraction: what about "the deck"? Does anyone routinely refer to the ground as "the deck" or is it only boyish or sporting slang?

mollymooly said...

I (Irish) can't recall hearing "floor" for "ground" other than as (what I interpreted as) a cutesy slang a la "reach for the sky" and "hit the deck".

Joe said...

In response to dearieme, the only time I (an American) would say "deck" for "ground" is in the phrase "hit the deck!", meaning "get down on the ground NOW!".

Janet said...

Lynne,

Funny you should write about this.

I JUST heard this use in our village last Friday night, referring to sparks from the primary school's fireworks show hitting the "floor" around us. I was "floored" (pardon the pun...) myself by that use, as I'd never heard it before. My English husband didn't find it odd but tends to use the word "ground" himself.

Janet

Dunce said...

I am from the US but have been living in the UK for 7 years. I've also noticed this use of floor. But unlike Lynne I very much enjoy watching sport(s) where I have heard numerous instances of "floor" referring to "outdoor ground". I don't think I ever heard this use in many years of watching various US outdoor sports coverage.

But its use seems fairly restricted (at least for those instances that come to my mind). Not restricted to cricket, but there seems to be a semantic restriction whereby "floor" is not used for all interactions with the playing surface (at least in announcer-talk).

In football, for example, it's quite common for someone to say that someone has been knocked to the floor, or is still on the floor. Or that an angry player has picked up the ball off the floor after an unfair call. Or thrown the same ball to the floor in a strop. But if the ball takes a funny bounce, it doesn't seem that "floor" is used. Nor does it seem that people are described as jumping high off the floor (e.g. contesting for a ball in the air). Maybe this kind of floor is not something you jump from, but only something you land on. Such a "floor" can also be littered with debris: I saw recent UK coverage of a US "Major" League Soccer game/match in which play was delayed because fans were throwing some kind of streamers onto the pitch, and they piled up on the ground (announcer "floor") such that a player was unable to take a corner kick. Quite akin to the chewing gum/poo example (although streamers are perhaps more likely to interfere with a corner kick).

Or in rugby where the playing surface plays a special role: a try is scored by touching the ball down on the playing surface at the end of the field. I've never heard this area described as "floor" (for example, in a close call where the referees are trying to determine whether the ball has been touched to the ground or not. Not the floor). But plenty of uses when a person is knocked down, etc. (as in the football examples above).

can you refer to the surface of a road as the floor?

In some sporting circumstances, yes. For example this article has a quote from UK athlete Paula Radcliffe:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/athletics/4586345.stm
Again this is "floor" as surface that can be fallen upon, here in a road race (the same also applies to cycling).

Dunce said...

Addendum to my comment above: apparently it's just fine to describe a rugby try as "touching the ball to the floor": Google gives a few examples such as Rugby players must touch the ball to the floor to score.

So I can hardly say that a rugby try isn't a use of "floor", just that I haven't noticed it before. (Maybe I've seen too many dull defensive matches without many tries, and lots of players knocked to the floor).

johnb said...

I find many of the cliche-like example given familiar to my BrE ear - and can see my using Floor (or deck) for ground in those cliches.

Its not something I do on a regular basis outside those cliches.

I suspect many commentators struggle for different ways to say things - to make their commentary sound either interesting or artistic - and I suspect sports commentators are among the worst.

Don't forget those poor cricket commentators can be commentating on one match for five straight days. They need something to liven the commentary up :) I remember one match where the commentators spent the the whole of the lunch break discussing a small flock of pigeons that were wandering around the wicket.

Ahh - those were the days. Long slow summer days (back in the day, us lecturers used to get a decent summer break) and a test match on BBC with no adverts ...

Doug Sundseth said...

AmE: For aircraft usages, I would use "floor" to indicate a mandated minimum altitude, but I wouldn't use it for the ground. In that same circumstance, I might also use "deck", but that could also mean "ground". For an upper bound, "ceiling" is standard.

Also on "floor", one of your commenters mentioned the varying usage of "first floor" in AmE and BrE in this post.

qwerty said...

I'm from the north (England), and 'floor' seems perfectly natural. It would take concious effort for me to say ground 100% of the time.

mollymooly said...

@Doug Sundseth: the metaphorical senses of "floor" and "ceiling" you describe are standard in math(s), as used in Computer Programming, Engineering, etc.

Tracey said...

My better half says he's "up" when he really means he's awake. (He's patently not up since he is still lying in bed.) He's American, I'm English.

johnb said...

And an after thought ...

If a motor cyclist told me they had 'Floored their bike' - I would assume they had been involved in an incident where the bike had finished up, on its side, on the ground - most probably without hitting anything.

In that sense - the road is referred to as the floor :P

Its also know as 'Putting it down'.

katie said...

My (Portuguese) husband says "floor" all the time for "ground" and I constantly correct him because to me (brought up in Scotland central belt) "floor" is just plain wrong to describe the ground outside! I've never heard anyone else using it that way either.

terrycollmann said...

My (Irish) wife is constantly complaining about my (London-born and - pace Dearieme - educated to postgraduate level) use of "floor" to mean "ground" - I believe I tend to say "ground" for bare/grassed earth and "floor" for pavement and the like. IIRC, and FWIW, the Romanian word for "ground" is derived from the Latin word for "pavement" ...

Anonymous said...

With reference to "floor" = "ground", it may be relevant to the discussion that - certainly a couple of decades ago - that usage was very usual in Wales whilst not in England . I have long had a tentative theory that it was to do with many people - as it were - thinking in Welsh and then translating into English to say whatever they were thinking of . This probably applied more to the older generations , and their children would have learned the English word even if they did not bother to learn Welsh .

Does anyone know if there are distinct Welsh words for "floor" and "ground" ? And does this theory work in other languages ?

powalsh said...

Irish people don't use "floor" for "ground" and, in general, we see this usage as incorrect. We have the same problem with the English sink in the bathroom. We call it a washbasin.

String said...

Another late comment, but wanted to add my two pennies/cents worth... My BH is Mancunian, and both she and her family use "floor" to mean "ground". So definitely not a southeastern thing. And yes, it still sounds odd to my American ear, even after 10 years.

Jerry said...

Glad I found this post. I've been noticing many examples of different usage between what I've always considered to be normal and what my partner and his family use. I'm 46 and he's 51. We are both from Southern California. My family is Irish from the East Coast of the US, and his family is Mexican from Colorado and Texas. I don't recall any contexts in which I've heard anyone in his family even use the word "ground". It's always "floor". I've given up pointing out "correct" English because apparently I've stumbled upon a larger community with the same usage - it's not just his family. I do think it may have something to do with education, at least here in Southern California, but may also have to do with how Spanish-speaking communities have become English-speaking communities in this area.

This is a late post to this topic, but I've been bothered by this particular difference in usage for several years and am glad I found it. I would like to add a few more updates as I get some more observations.

Thanks, all, for your comments!

Discodoris said...

I originate from Essex, UK - but have often used floor for outside as well as inside. But then, I'm not sure how accurate it is for me to comment, I love language and am entirely liable to pick up archaic or seriously unfashionable terms and use them fondly. Floor to me just means what is beneath my feet when I'm standing up. Having said that, I can't think of a more specific term for an interior surface than floor.

Janibach said...

Another very late comment due to your "diference of he day" Tweet. I would never say 'floor' when outdoors, but my Essex-born grandma would.
My American husband wouldn't either, but he refers to stairs' as 'steps'. To me, stairs are always indoors and steps are usually outdoors and made of stone, steel or concrete.

Mindy said...

American, I would not call outdoors a floor. And in sports in America would'nt they call it the football field, soccer feild, baseball field? Basketball would be a court and when played indoors could be the floor but not when outdoors. Hockey is a rink, and that would be the Ice, not sure if I would say either ground nor floor but rather the ice.

Anonymous said...

I'm not keen on floor as ground, but as a Brit-English speaker have probably said it unwittingly from time-to-time.

I would use it intentionally in certain circumstances. If someone knocks someone down with a punch then you can say they "floored" them. If somebody drops a catch you can say they "floored" it. You couldn't use "grounded" here - that's already taken.

I'm a cricket fan though, and can honestly say I've never picked up on it being used more there - even with the dropped catch example. It's too common a word for cricket, surely? That's full of nightwatchmen, googlies and Duckworth-Lewis methods. "Floor" wouldn't get a look in.

David Crosbie said...

I (BrE speaker, late sixties) believe I make a distinction.

Planes can be in the sky or up in the air. Alternatively, they can be on the ground but not on the floor.

Leaving aside the floor of the forest and the floor of the ocean, unmodified the floor — when outside — is somehow people-related. It's what you can fall down on. It's where you can sit or lie. It's under your feet as you stand or walk. It's within your field of vision when you look down.

If it's more extensive than the immediate environment of a person, if it contrasts with something way above human height, then it can only be the ground.

That said, I think I can use the ground in all contexts — except when it's the floor of something or, of course, when it's indoors or otherwise enclosed.

Clydesdale Jefferson said...

On "floor" I'm pretty sure it doesn't come from cricket.,I have only ever heard it used in that context as an expression like "to floor a catch" or possibly " caught it just before it hit the floor", as one might say "deck" or something more outlandishly- ie jocular. It is not a term "used in cricket". However it might be used by cricketers who use "floor" for " ground". Never do myself.