'Chaise lounge' isn't just a corrupted version of 'chaise longue'

One of my favorite summer activities is relaxing on a chaise longue under an umbrella with a good book. It’s a nice escape from the grueling work of changing “chaise lounge” to “chaise longue” in article after article this time of year — and wondering why I bother.

A “chaise longue” is, of course, one of those long lounge chairs you see situated around swimming pools, as well as indoor furniture in a similar shape. The term comes from the French “chaise,” meaning “chair,” and “longue,” which is the French feminine form of “long.” But because these chairs are for lounging and because Americans are less familiar with the French spelling, we English speakers often use “chaise lounge.”

This process of transforming foreign or less familiar words into something familiar is called “folk etymology” — like “duck tape” formed from “duct tape,” both of which are correct today.

But it would be a mistake to assume that “chaise lounge” came from “chaise longue” through this exact process. In fact, “chaise lounge” is almost as well established in English as “chaise longue.” The English spelling started showing up in dictionaries in the 1920s, just a decade or two after dictionaries started including the French term, which we used to hyphenate: chaise-longue.

But even before that, English speakers were using “lounge” to mean a type of chair, for example in this passage from the 1852 novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”: “He stretched himself at full length on a lounge opposite Marie.”

So we didn’t get this sense of “lounge” simply by rearranging the letters in “longue.”

Even more interesting: “chaise longue” and “chaise lounge” have sort of carved out their own roles over the years.

“The American ‘chaise lounge’ began to appear in print in the 1920s; undoubtedly it had been used in speech for some time earlier,” writes Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. “As a printed term, it seems to have become established first in the trade; many of our early citations are from manufacturers’ catalogs and newspaper advertisements. When the spelling began to appear in both the Montgomery Ward and the Sears and Roebuck catalogs, it could no longer be ignored.”

As “chaise lounge” was staking out its place in the business world, “chaise longue” became dominant in literature. Surprisingly, it still is. According to Google’s Ngram Viewer, “chaise longue” is about 50% more common in published works than “chaise lounge.” Editors like me could be the reason. I discuss why in my recent column.

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