Q: My wife and I started noticing the use of “ground” for “floor” a few years ago. Now it’s rampant and almost universal. I will just scream at the TV, “It’s the FLOOR dang it!” Is there any reasonable explanation for this widespread abuse?
A: Usually, as we say in a 2009 post, the “floor” is what you walk on inside a building, and the “ground” is what you walk on outside. However, people have been using “ground” for “floor” in the indoors sense since at least the mid-19th century.
We wouldn’t describe the usage as “rampant” or “almost universal.” It’s out there, but not out there enough to get into most online standard dictionaries. Only two of the ten that we’ve consulted include it—with similar qualifications.
Collins describes the use of “ground” for “the floor of a room” as “mainly British,” while Merriam-Webster Unabridged says it’s “chiefly British,” and gives this example from Aldous Huxley’s 1928 novel Point Counter Point: “kneeling on the ground beside the couch he leaned over her.”
From what we’ve observed, the use of “ground” for “floor” appears in both American and British English.
The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, includes it without the “British” qualification (or any other).
In fact, the earliest written example in the OED is from An American Dictionary of the English Language (1847), by Noah Webster. The dictionary, a revised and enlarged edition published four years after Webster’s death, defines “ground” as, among other things, “a floor or pavement.”
The OED also cites British sources, including this example (which we’ve expanded) from Murder in the Mews (1937), a short story by Agatha Christie: “We came along at once and forced the door open. Mrs. Allen was lying in a heap on the ground shot through the head.”
As we’ve said, the usage isn’t new. You became aware of it a few years ago, and you now seem to hear or see it everywhere.
There’s a name for this phenomenon: the “recency illusion.” The linguist Arnold Zwicky came up with the term, which he’s defined as “the belief that things YOU have noticed only recently are in fact recent.”
The use of “ground” for “floor” may have you screaming at the TV, but it doesn’t seem to bother language commentators. It isn’t mentioned in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.), Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), Pat’s Woe Is I (4th ed.), or other guides.
We wouldn’t be surprised if the usage begins showing up in more dictionaries, perhaps labeled “informal” or “colloquial.” If that happens, usage writers may have something to say about it.
Is there an explanation for this use of “ground”? Well, perhaps it was influenced by the use of the phrase “ground floor” for the floor of a building at ground level. That phrase appeared a couple of centuries before people began using “ground” to mean “floor.” However, we haven’t seen any evidence for or against this idea.
As you know, the noun “ground” can refer to many things other than the surface of the earth—a parade ground, grounds for divorce, coffee grounds, a ground for an electrical connection, the grounds around a house, etc. So it’s not surprising that people might use such a flexible word to mean a “floor.”
If the “ground” at the bottom of an ocean can be called the “floor,” a usage that dates back to the 17th century, is it really so outlandish to call a building’s “floor” the “ground”?
(In “Lycidas,” a 1637 elegy for a friend drowned in the Irish Sea, Milton refers to the seabed as “the wat’ry floore.”)
When the noun “ground” first appeared in Anglo-Saxon times (spelled grund or grunde), it referred to the bottom of something—the sea, a well, a ditch, and so on, according to the OED.
Perhaps the oldest citation is from Beowulf, an Old English epic that may have been written as early as 725: “Me to grunde geteah fah feondscaða” (“A sea fiend dragged me to the ground”).
In the 10th century, “ground” came to mean the surface of the earth. The first Oxford example is from the Blickling Homilies (971): “gefyldan eal oþ grund” (“they all fell to the ground”).
When “floor” showed up in Old English (spelled flór), it referred to the wood, brick, stone, etc. that people walked on in a room.
The first OED citation is from King Ælfred’s translation (circa 888) of De Consolatione Philosophiæ, a sixth-century Latin treatise by the Roman philosopher Boethius: “He gefeoll niwol of dune on þa flor” (“He fell headlong down on the floor”).