The first floor is on the ground.

The first floor is on the ground.

On those occasions when I’m forced to take the elevator (which is often, because it’s literally impossible in my office building to walk up the stairs – the door to the stairwell is kept locked), I am reminded of another Americanism: the “first” floor.

A fish doesn’t know the water, so this was something I wasn’t even aware of until I moved to London in 2005. In the US, the floor of a building which is at ground level is called the “first” floor. If you walk up one flight of stairs (or, more likely, take the elevator), you are on the second floor. I never questioned the fact that this does not, in fact, make sense.

In the UK (and many other countries), the floor of a building which is at ground level is called… the ground floor (abbreviated “G” on elevator buttons). If you walk up one story, you will find yourself on the first floor. If you walk up two stories, you will find yourself on the second floor. Now isn’t that some ground breaking logic? (Yes, pun intended.)

This of course leads to plenty of confusion when people from, err, the rest of the world come to the US and, err, want to exit a building. Confusion which is similar to that which is caused by the US’s persistent use of imperial units, the 12-hour clock, and US letter format paper, other American systems that are incompatible and out of date with the rest of the world. AMURICA.



Filed under Practicalities

6 responses to “Grounded

  1. KT, you maybe didnt know this since you were in Bronfman High when we were at McGill, but the buildings there had a WIDE array of choices- sometimes you walked in on 1- sometimes you walked in on G- and SOMETIMES, you walked in on G, and the next floor was 2- WTF? On another note, what about the “basement” level? XO

    • I believe it is because Canada varies between the US system and the European system. I believe buildings in Ontario are more likely to follow the American system of starting on the first floor, whereas buildings in Quebec are more likely to follow the European system of starting with the ground floor. But, as you pointed out, even within Quebec, it varies. I have heard that in Quebec it depends on the architect of the building — whether he/she was French Canadian or English Canadian!

    • When I was about five I got lost in a department store in England. They announced: Edward Avis please go to the ground floor. So I pressed button 1 in the elevator but nobody was there, so I went away again. This happened several times.

  2. Gaurav

    Naa, both systems are plausible but I’ll say the American one has the edge.

    Generally, the floor is the lower inside surface of something or the lowest part (that isn’t under it). We say ocean “floor” for the bottom of the ocean.

    The first level you walk into in a building is its first floor – literally. When you’re on the 2nd floor that’s literally the 2nd floor of the building. Even if you’re counting stories it works. Floor one is the building’s first story, floor two is the building’s second story, etc.

    There’s no reason to count from zero which is what the English system does. A one level building isn’t a zero story building, after all. And you might even lose useful information from being overly complicated. You explained that if you walk up two stories you end up on the 2nd floor (but you’re on the building’s 3rd story!). So the system counts the traversed distance between floors in relation to the surface of the earth? Why?

    Your blog is awesome! Thanks for some lunchtime fun 🙂

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