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?


  1. 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... :)

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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?

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

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

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. "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).

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

    Thanks for the clarifications, Marek.

  15. 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.

  16. 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?

  17. 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".

  18. 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!".

  19. 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.


  20. 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:
    Again this is "floor" as surface that can be fallen upon, here in a road race (the same also applies to cycling).

  21. 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).

  22. 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 ...

  23. 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.

  24. 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.

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

  26. 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.

  27. 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'.

  28. 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.

  29. 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" ...

  30. 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 ?

  31. 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.

  32. 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.

  33. 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!

  34. 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.

  35. 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.

  36. 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.

  37. 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.

  38. 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.

  39. 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.

  40. re: Welsh

    I've just spoken to my friend (grew up and lives in North Wales) who was raised completely bilingual, and speaks both on a daily basis.
    She says that while Welsh doesn't have distinct words for ground and floor, to say floor for the outside would sound very unnatural, if not ungrammatical. Instead, people are likely to use a more subordinate word, like grass, tarmac or concrete.

  41. I hear this all the time on a show that I watch spoken by African Americans, which makes me think it is Ebonics (along with aks instead of ask).

  42. I read the Daily News and I see the word floor used to describe what I would call ground all the time.

  43. All these brits here saying they don't say floor to mean ground are liars. Just watch tv. Virtually all british use the word floor to mean the ground.
    Who knows why.
    Why indeed has the incorrect tense of 'to sit' - when used in the form, eg, ' I was sitting..' taken over in the uk? Now everyone, incl older middle class southerners, say ' I was sat...' Why? Who knows.
    I've lived here 17 years and have noticed a slow but constant decline in standards. As well as an adoption of poor pronunciation, esp the glottal stop.

  44. "a slow but constant decline in standards …"

    You mean "a slow but constant change in the way words are used." Only ignorant snobs call language change "a decline in standards". Is the fact that we don't speak the same English as Chaucer, or Alfred the Great, "a slow but constant decline in standards"? Languages change. Get over it.

  45. A very clear example of 'floor'='ground' in a very upsetting news story today. The suspect in the Jo Cox shooting was described by a witness:

    “He was lying down on the floor between two graves. He was wearing a black hoody and he had binoculars."

  46. And another, by a different witness:

    "He shot this lady once and then he shot her again, he fell to the floor, leant over shot her once more in the face area."

    I'm noticing linguistic things in the reporting because just thinking about the state of the world this week is too heart-tearingly difficult.

  47. From the Guardian live coverage of the Croatia-England World Cup semi-final match (11/07/18):

    Rebic goes up for a long ball, but only succeeds in clattering Pickford ***to the floor***. A foul, but nothing more, and we all play on.

    I will forever hate this usage of "floor" to mean ground. It just riles me up to no end, even more so than "I was sat/stood". Gak!

  48. Interesting topic. I came looking because my wife whom is asian as well as her family and friends use the word floor for any flat surface. I’m wondering if in other cultures like my wife who was born a Cantonese speaker only used one word in learning their translation to describe a flat surface. I also wonder because of migration of so many asians, Middle East on eastward in this shrinking world might they have brought their singular translation with them and therefore the terms are slowly mixing together?

  49. BrE, Scot, mid 60s. I have always thought of using floor to mean ground as what I would describe as “colourful language” - not a euphemism for swearing - which I don’t exclusively associate with poets, writers, etc. However, I have been very surprised to see so many comments talking about widespread use throughout the U.K.. it’s something else I don’t remember hearing before the advent of Eastenders in 1985. This is rapidly becoming by default explanation for a lot of “non-standard” English usage, although clearly wrong in this case. Does anyone else share this perception/prejudice?

  50. I regularly encounter the unintuitive (incorrect) use of the words, floor and ground, in the books I read on my Kindle e-reader, and I find it both annoying and disappointing. I hold authors (wordsmiths) to a high standard of language usage. I expect them to have a certain mastery of language. Incidentally, I find that British authors far more frequently misuse the words and are often inconsistent in their useage of these problematic terms.

    1. Exactly the reason I came here to try to understand why British authors are using these words this way, also the strange (at least to me!) use of “sat” for “sitting.”

  51. Did you fail to understand what was meant? Well, then … get over yourself.

  52. So, a dozen years on, an unrehearsed example in the wild:

    at 5:08.

    The "floor" here is the somewhat rubble-strewn ground in what looks like a quarry.

    Somebody with more knowledge than I have would have to identify the dialect in the piece.

    And now that I think of it, I would find "valley floor" or "canyon floor" entirely natural (AmE, various locations, mostly North Central and Rocky Mountains). I wonder whether I unconsciously conceive of "floor" as naturally used for "the bottom surface of something", while "ground" is the bottom surface of ... nothing?

  53. A dozen years on:

    at about 5:08. Dialect used is left as an exercise for someone who can identify British dialects.

    Upon further reflection, there are a few more uses that I (AmE, mostly north central and Rocky Mountain) would find natural: "valley floor" "canyon floor", "floor of the stadium". (All of these can be found pretty easily in AmE sources.) These share a sense of enclosure by walls, though not necessarily a ceiling, though I don't know how significant that might be.


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