Why do we call it a ‘sofa’? (Or a couch, or a settee?)
Is a sofa the same as a couch? Or should we call it a ‘settee’? If you want to know your divan from your davenport, and your chesterfield from your chaise-longue, read on. Here’s our complete guide to the many words for ‘sofa’… What would you call that orangey thing the lady pictured above is sitting on? A corner sofa, perhaps? It probably seems a bit old-fashioned for that. There are surprisingly many words for a sofa. The Chambers thesaurus offers a host of synonyms, including: settee, couch, chesterfield, davenport, lounge, canape, day-bed and divan. But do they all mean the same thing? The answer is… it depends. Here’s why.
Sofa, couch or settee – is there a ‘correct’ word?
In everyday modern usage, sofa is the most popular word in Britain to describe that big, comfy bit of furniture in your living room, while couch and settee are really just used as alternative words for the same thing. Whether one of those words is the ‘correct’ one is another matter. In her famous 1950s guide to linguistic snobbery, aristocratic author Nancy Mitford set out a list of words that were ‘U’ and ‘non-U’ — that is, the terms that were used by the ‘upper-class’ (and were therefore correct) versus the ones used by the aspiring middle-class. According to Mitford, often the ‘non-U’ words are fussier and more pretentious, while the upper-classes use the same simple words as the working classes. For example, a ‘U’-speaker would use a napkin to remove a blob of jam from her chin, whereas a ‘non-U’ person would rather prissily insist on removing the preserve with a serviette. In Mitford’s list, sofa is the proper ‘U’ word, while couch and settee are naff, new-money and ‘non-U.
That’s Nancy pictured above, sitting on her ‘U’ sofa. Do her snobbish distinctions mean anything at all these days? Almost certainly not, and sofa, couch and settee are all perfectly interchangeable in normal usage. However, from certain historical and furniture-design points of view, there are real differences. Nancy Mitford might well have called the orangey thing that the lady at the top is sitting on a ‘sofa’, but technically she’d be wrong…
The history of the word ‘sofa’
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word ‘sofa’ originates in the eastern Mediterranean with the Arabic soffah, which is ‘a part of the floor raised a foot or two, covered with rich carpets and cushions, and used for sitting upon.’
The first recorded written use of the word is by the English cleric and intrepid traveller Samuel Purchas, who in his 1625 work Purchas His Pilgrimage mentions seeing in Arabia: ‘A Sofa spread with very sumptuous Carpets of Gold, upon which the Grand Vizier sitteth.’ In 1637 another traveller to the east, Sir George Courthop, wrote in his memoirs of a ‘place raised about a foot to sit on’, only he called it a ‘sopha’. Indeed, it took a while for us to decide how to spell it. The sofa as we know it – a dedicated item of furniture – came to England via France in the 17th Century and soon became widespread in the homes of the wealthy. In his 1728 work Love of Fame, poet Edward Young included the line: On her sophee she sits, Vouchsafing audience to contending wits. Some may think it’s a pity Young’s variation didn’t stick – it might have been nice if we were called Sophee.com – but by the 19th Century the nation had settled on the spelling ‘sofa’. It had also come up with all the accessories. Jane Austen mentions needing to repair a ‘sofa-cover’ in one of her letters, while Thackeray Makepeace has one of his characters in Vanity Fair threaten to throw a ‘sofa-cushion’ at someone, and Thomas Hardy in Tess of the D’Urbervilles even has a reference to an early ‘sofa bed’. Charles Dickens, in his 1860 non-fiction collection The Uncommercial Traveller coined the word ‘sofane’ to describe a view of the world through a sofa’s eyes: ‘[The room had…] a sofa, of incomprehensible form regarded from any sofane point of view’. Meanwhile, one of the first literary references to our profession can be found in J.C Atkinson’s 1859 book Walks and Talks of Two Schoolboys, in which he points out a man with ‘a beard that would have been a small fortune to a sofa-stuffer.’
So much for the etymology of the word sofa. As to what precisely a sofa is, the OED defines it as: ‘A long, stuffed seat with a back and ends or end, used for reclining.’ Technically speaking, that makes it slightly different from some of the other multiple-person seats that we tend to call sofas…
1) The couch The word ‘couch’ originally meant any structure with a soft covering designed for lying on to sleep – i.e. a bed rather than a chair (the French word coucher means ‘to sleep’) and it appears in Chaucer’s writings in 1385: ‘I bad men schulde me myn couche make.’ The first recorded use of couch referring to a seat is around 1500 in the medieval work Merlin: ‘Theisatte doun on a cowche that was covered with a cloth of silke.’
According to Martin Pengler’s Dictionary of Interior Design a couch is ‘a lounge chair used for resting, with supports and cushions at one or both ends’. It was a French innovation of the early 17th century and unlike a sofa, which has a back spanning right the way across, a couch either has no back or only a half-back. In this respect, a couch is the same as a lounge or daybed. A chaise-longue, meanwhile, is an upright chair for one that has been stretched to be long enough to put your feet up (in French chaise-longue is literally a ‘long chair’ and can be used to describe any long reclining chair such as a deckchair). The couch is also the form of chair most commonly used for psychiatric examination.
2) The settee A settee, like a sofa but unlike a couch, has a back. However, it seems that the ‘settee’ evolved separately to the ‘sofa’, even if they ended up being indistinguishable. The word settee is, according to the OED ‘perhaps a fanciful variation of settle’. A settle, historically, is a bench, usually made of oak, popular in the Middle Ages and often ornately carved and decorated (see below).
So a settee is a developed settle with a soft seat, and perhaps also an upholstered back and arms. Such settees became popular in Britain in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, and usually matched individual chairs of the period in design. In 1823 the linguist E. Moor wrote in his book Suffolk Words and Phrases: ‘Settee, a sopha or moveable window-seat; in more modern language called, I believe, a conversation stool. I have not heard the word of many years, and believe it is going out.’ Well, settee never did quite ‘go out’ as a word, although on the other hand it never caught on in America. A survey by Oxford Dictionaries on the most popular words for the big comfy thing in your front room found that sofa was the clear winner in Britain, with settee a way behind and couch a distant third; but in America couch won out just ahead of sofa with settee nowhere to be seen. The Americans in the survey did, however, suggest some other interesting alternatives…
3) The love seat Still a popular name in the States to describe a two-seater sofa, the love seat is a chair capable of accommodating either one wide person or two narrow persons if, as the name suggests, they don’t mind being in close proximity to one another. The style of chair first appeared in France and England the late 17th centuries and were not in fact intended for match-making but to allow plenty of space for ladies wearing the enormous dresses then in fashion. It was in the 19th century that they began to be produced as ‘love seats’ or ‘courting chairs’, occasionally with an S-shaped divide so that the two sitters could have their legs facing in opposite directions, but still be tête-à-tête:
A canapé, meanwhile, is a three-person sofa, with wooden legs and upholstered seat, back and armrest, of an elegant style that emerged in 18th century France – so a bit like a love seat, only for a ménage à trois.
4) Chesterfields and davenports A chesterfield is an overstuffed, heavily upholstered sofa, usually large, with scrolled, roll-over arms the same height as the back and often made of buttoned leather. It’s the kind you’d expect to see in the smoking room of a Gentleman’s Club in Victorian London. Some say the name comes from the fourth Earl of Chesterfield who may have commissioned one in the 18th century, but there’s no real evidence for that.
In Canada, the word chesterfield is still a widely-used term for any kind of sofa, but it’s virtually unknown in the United States, where davenport is much more popular. A. H. Davenport was an upmarket Massachusetts furniture manufacturer in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, whose sofas were so popular that the trademark became a generic term, like ‘hoover’. The word gradually declined in popularity (in 1981 a piece in the New York Times said: There used to be a split on ‘davenport’ and ‘sofa’; now the split is between ‘sofa’ and ‘couch’) but a big, formal sofa is still commonly referred to as a ‘davenport’ in the US.
5) The divan One of the more exotic words used to describe a comfy chair for multiple persons, the ‘divan’ was originally a long step, bench, or raised part of the floor, running along an entire wall of a room and strewn with cushions. The name came from Turkish or Persian ‘divan’ councils or courts, which might take place in rooms so furnished. The French adapted the idea into the long upholstered bench, which became fashionable in the Romantic period.
So, to answer the question right at the beginning of this article: the orangey thing that the lady at the top is sitting on is technically not a corner sofa but a divan. She is Empress Josephine, wife of Napoleon, portrayed in 1801 by Francois Gerard sitting on an upholstered French divan inspired by Turkish furniture ideas. Nowadays, a divan really just means a backless, armless couch, but the divan, like the sofa, is a fine example of how Europeans took a very good idea from the Arabic world and adapted it to suit western lifestyles. In 1702 the Dutch traveller Cornelius de Bruyn wrote in his A Voyage to the Levant that ‘Their greatest Magnificence consists in their Divans or Sofas’ … We like to think the same can still be said in Britain today, at least at Sofa.com!
So there you have it – a complete guide to the history of the word ‘sofa’. Of course, when it comes to sofa style’s we have them in abundance! Check out some of our customer favourites: the bluebell, the snowdrop, the Isla to name but a few.