Mind your language

Do we wrestle coronavirus to the floor – or the ground?

16 May 2020

9:00 AM

16 May 2020

9:00 AM

In the game of ‘U’ and ‘Non-U’, begun by Alan S.C. Ross (1907-80) and popularised in Nancy Mitford’s volume Noblesse Oblige, some words embody upper-class usage (U), and some definitely do not. To the Non-U toilet and serviette might be added floorin the sense of the ground outdoors.

Did Boris Johnson succumb to Non-U usage in remarks about coronavirus? ‘If this virus were a physical assailant, an unexpected and invisible mugger,’ he said, ‘then this is the moment when we have begun together to wrestle it to the floor.’ Floor or ground?

On VE Day 1945, speaking from the balcony of the Ministry of Health, Winston Churchill said: ‘A terrible foe has been cast on the ground and awaits our judgment and our mercy.’

An incident last week allowed the display of current usage. A man was Tasered by police at a petrol station. The Sunreported that he fell ‘to the ground’, but a little later had him lying ‘on the floor’. Perhaps that reflected the Non-U preference of the newspaper’s readership. But the Times reported the incident too and said that the man’s child cried ‘Daddy’ as he was ‘put on the floor’ but that seconds later the man fell ‘to the ground’.

Why this confusion in both papers between the floor and the ground? I had a suspicion and asked one of Veronica’s friends who works on a newspaper to look up any press agency copy that might have been behind the reports. Sure enough, the Press Association had reported the incident. Its narrative said that the man ‘falls to the ground’ and is later ‘ordered to put his hands behind his back while he is on the floor’. Outdoors, I would say ground, indoors floor.

But we are capable of varying the use of floorand groundin different senses. The Traveller’s horse champed the grasses of the forest’s ferny floor. The ground is hit running. Schemes are implemented on the ground, or on the factory floor. The dance floor may be on the ground floor. Like birds, the enemy may be floored by shot, and boxers by a blow. Just as Oxford undergraduates could once be gated, American children could be grounded, and now we all are.

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