The Grammarphobia Blog

Supporting language

Q: I’ve been hearing a new usage in Jersey City for things that support us. People are using “chair” for anything they sit on (seat, sofa, bench, stool, pew, etc.) and “floor” for anything they stand on (ground, pavement, street, sidewalk, lawn, etc.). Have you noticed this?

A: We haven’t encountered this general use of “chair” to mean any kind of seat—stool, bench, sofa, car seat, and so on.

The Oxford English Dictionary isn’t (yet) aware of this usage either. The OED’s general definition of “chair” is a seat for one person, a “movable four-legged seat with a rest for the back.”

Perhaps the wider use of “chair” that you’ve noticed is a regional usage peculiar to the Jersey City area. In that case, don’t assume it’s a sign of a change in the language.

Although there are exceptions, regional differences tend to stay regional and don’t necessarily influence English as a whole.

On the other hand, sometimes very old usages survive as regionalisms. This could be the case with “floor” as a general term for the ground, a subject we once discussed on our blog.

Back in 2009, we promised to write more if we found out anything new, but there isn’t a whole lot to add.

American dictionaries still don’t consider “floor” and “ground” interchangeable. Both are words for bottom surfaces, but usually a “floor” is inside and the “ground” is outside (except in phrases like “the ocean floor” and “the forest floor”).

But as we pointed out in our blog posting, “floor” was a word for “ground” centuries ago. And at least one modern British dictionary, the Collins English Dictionary, says that even today one definition of “floor” is “the earth; ground.”

However, the OED describes that usage as obsolete, except in dialects.

Here’s one of Oxford’s citations for the now obsolete usage. It comes from Morte Arthure, a Middle English romance written in the 1300s:

“With the drowghte of the daye alle drye ware thee flores!” (We’ve replaced the letter thorn with “th” in this example.)

Here’s another, from John Dryden’s 1697 translation of Virgil’s Pastorals (we’ve expanded the OED citation to give more of the context):

“Two Satyrs, on the ground, / Stretch’d at his Ease, their Syre Silenus found. … / His rosie Wreath was dropt not long before, / Born by the tide of Wine, and floating on the floor.”

But as we said, the OED describes the use of “floor” for “ground” as dialectal in modern usage. One of Oxford’s citations, from an 1865 issue of the Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall, reported that in the Cornish dialect “floor” was used to mean “a grass meadow.”

There’s a chance, we suppose, that the interchangeable use of “floor” and “ground” by some Americans could be a dialectal survival from days of old.

But this tendency among other Americans has nothing to do with Middle English.

In a 1959 article in the journal American Speech, George Yost Jr. noted that Syrian and Lebanese immigrants often confuse the words “floor” and “ground” because one Arabic noun (ard) serves for both.

Check out our books about the English language