A Word, Please: Chaising an elusive longue

Did you know that, according to a lot of language sticklers, the type of chair so many people refer to as a "chaise lounge" is really a "chaise longue," using the French word for "long"? Well, neither do about 60% of the population, if a recent Google search is any indication. A search for "chaise lounge" turned up about 1.4 million hits on a recent day, with the more proper "chaise longue" turning up just 984,000.

Not cool, according to a lot of language observers.

"Some people commit the embarrassing error of saying or writing 'chaise lounge,'" writes Bryan Garner in "Garner's Modern American Usage." "The problem is that 'lounge,' when put after 'chaise,' looks distinctly low-rent."

Ouch. I don't even use "chaise lounge" and that stings — probably because I spent most of my youth and a good chunk of my adulthood living in very (very) cheap apartments.

Garner isn't alone in this opinion. Many experts say that "chaise longue" is right and "chaise lounge" is wrong and that's the end of the discussion. But the truth is that, in language, simple proclamations of right and wrong are never the end of the discussion because they fail to finish their own thought: Wrong according to whom?

If you consider your former English teacher the decider-in-chief on what's right and wrong, you should avoid "chaise lounge" at all costs — especially if you went to school in the '50s and early '60s when strong usage opinions set the standard in many classrooms.

But you should probably check teachers' facts first. A surprising amount of the language gospel spread in those days, it turns out, was baseless.

Likewise, if you consider a usage guide like Garner's to be an ultimate authority, stick with "longue." But again, your allegiance should not be blind. The better-known "Fowler's Modern English Usage" gives a slight nod to "chaise lounge," albeit a reluctant one.

Me, I usually take my marching orders from dictionaries. Notice that's plural, "dictionaries." They often disagree with one another, and I find that a surveying of two or three is a much better basis for decision-making than a quick look at one. And none of the dictionaries I checked has much fondness for "chaise lounge." They all clearly prefer "longue."

But not even dictionaries can tell me that I "can't" use a term like "chaise lounge." Of course I can. Watch me: chaise lounge. The only "can't" a dictionary can lay down is more like, "You can't use 'chaise lounge' if you want to be in compliance with the dictionary." Or perhaps: "You can't use 'chaise lounge' if you want to stickler-proof your English."

The truth is, I do. I like to show, in my writing and speech, that I'm aware of these language issues, and I don't like the e-mails I get when people think I've fallen short.

So I never use "chaise lounge." When I see it in an article I'm editing, I change it.

What about the 984,000 "chaise lounge"-laden Web pages. Well, funny thing about that: The very language refs whose authority I most respect, dictionaries, derive their authority from a surprising source — you and me.

Dictionaries don't dictate usage. They reflect it. They tell you not how people should use the language, but how people do use the language. And they base that on samplings of real usage, not unlike my Google search. So the real grammar authorities are those 2.4 million people.

Some call this process erosion of the language. But, unless they say it in words that make them sound just like Geoffrey Chaucer, this language-shouldn't-change argument is clearly baseless.

So when the official scorekeepers of the language, dictionaries, report that "chaise lounge" is now standard, I might consider ditching "chaise longue." But not a moment sooner.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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