Whether you call it a sofa, a settee or a couch, your primary urge is just to sit down and relax, and what you call it doesn’t really matter. But if you have a craving to be technically correct, then the history of each word is quite revealing.
Believe it or not, people have been sitting down for years, and the name of what they have sat on has taken on as many changes and shapes and sizes as the type of furniture itself. As well as sofa, settee and couch we have a Chesterfield, a Davenport, a Lounge, a Canape, A Day-Bed and a Divan. Some of these are of course historical or at least describe a more distinctive kind of seat, but the lines are a little more blurred when it comes to what we would describe as a sofa, settee or couch, and the difference is often down to how old we are and where we were born, but historically the difference was often down to social class.
The word ‘sofa’ is actually Turkish, and is derived from the Arabic word ‘soffa’ which means ‘wool’ and was sometimes spelt ‘soffah’. Originally this was defined as ‘a part of the floor raised a foot or two, covered with rich carpets and cushions and used for sitting upon’. ‘Sofa’ as a word and spelling was first used in writing by an English cleric called Samuel Purchas in his 1625 work ‘Purchas this Pilgrimage’. He talks about “a sofa with sumptuous carpets of Gold” that he discovered on his travels in Arabia.
It was called a ‘sopha’ for a long time still, but the word ‘sofa’ was settled upon when a dedicated item of furniture came to wealthy homes in England via France in the 17h century. Since then, many famous authors, such as Jane Austen, Thackeray Makepeace and Thomas Hardy, made literary reference to the humble sofa as the word became more widespread. The Oxford English Dictionary now defines the sofa as “a long, stuffed seat with a back and ends or end, used for reclining”. Which seems a fair description to us, although at Nabru, we would describe our sofas a lot more generously.
The couch is defined slightly differently. This originally meant a structure with a soft covering designed for lying on to sleep. So this was originally more of a bed than a chair, and the word ‘couch’ is derived from the French verb ‘coucher’ which means to lay down, or to put to bed. Chaucer referred to a couch as a place to sleep in his work in 1385, but by 1500 it was written about as a seat.
Many people believe a couch is a French innovation from 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 half a back, but unlike a Chaise Longue. A traditional couch is how we would now describe a ‘psychiatrist’s couch’ or a leather couch in a hotel lobby, a bar or a waiting room.
A settee is more commonly known as being similar to a sofa, as it has a back, but the settee definitely evolved separately to a sofa, even though today they both mean the same thing. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a settee as “perhaps a fanciful variation of a settle”, which historically is a bench made of Oak from the Middle Ages, and is technically where the word comes from; ie. an old English word also spelt ‘setl’. The settee therefore developed as a bench with a soft seat, and as they became more popular in the 17th and 18th century often matched individual seats with the same period design.
Undoubtedly, the word ‘couch’ today is the most popular term used in the United States, where sofa is a close second, but settee is not used at all. In the UK, sofa is by far the most popular term, settee is something of an outdated term for the same thing, and couch is rarely used, except perhaps as one of the many questionable ‘Americanisms’ that have entered our vocabulary, and technically, the ‘couch’ as a kind of reclining seat used by psychiatrists to lay down on, is still a valid term.
So I bet you’re glad you asked now, aren’t you? Now go and have a sit down after all that learning, on whatever you want to call it.