Here is an interesting question that arrived today from Dwaine Byrd of Detroit:
“I consider myself to have a fairly decent mastery of the English language, but living in the Detroit area, though raised in the South, I hear an occasional giggle when I use a term that is typically heard south of the Mason-Dixon. One of the terms I have a very hard time getting past is ‘in the floor’. I am told that it should be ‘on the floor’, which I perfectly understand and don’t argue at all. However, down home, ‘in the floor’ is very common and understood. I suppose it would be akin to getting in the bed at night to go to sleep. One doesn’t get ‘on the bed’, he gets in it. And when I take my clothes off, I put them ‘in the floor’.”
“You know, after proofreading this, it sounds a lot stranger than it actually is, but is ‘in the floor’ as common as I had always supposed it to be? Or is this term just completely taboo?”
Well, I’m from rural North Carolina, which is pretty far south and an area where turns of phrase pretty alien to Yankees are commonplace (see my Glossary of Quaint Southernisms for a sampling). However, I’ve never heard this phrase before either from North Carolinians nor from people I know from elsewhere in the South.
Of course, that fact does not deter a proud former academic like myself from expressing an opinion. I have talked about dialects several times in this blog and I may have even mentioned idiolects, dialects that are constrained to a very small area, even to a single family or person. I think that is what we are dealing with here.
In and on have an interesting relationship which I might even look into some day. While Dwaine doesn’t sleep on the bed, he does, I’ll bet, sit on it. Saying that something is “in the floor” suggests that it is logically located there. In this case, if something was dropped out of place on the floor, I would expect “on the floor”.
But I’ll bet this is not the case in Dwaine’s idiolect. I would guess that it is simply idiomatic, in a category of oddities like the use by New Yorkers of “standing on line” rather than “in line”. Why do they do that? Probably someone of prominence, an immigré no doubt, used this expression a long time ago and, despite its going against the grain of linguistic intuition, it stuck. If so, then there is no explanation. It is there for the same unreason we call a long, fat pastry a ladyfinger and a fuzzy caterpillar a wooly bear (more on this).
You shouldn’t be embarrassed, Dwaine. This little phrase helps distinguish you from the crowd. That isn’t bad. However, if it is too much for you to handle, you might try hanging your clothes up when you go to bed. That way you won’t have to use the phrase and I’m sure someone in your family will appreciate it.