Saturday, October 25, 2008

Is it a sofa or a couch?

We’re often correcting clients looking for a couch, suggesting that they’re actually looking for a sofa. That usually results in a puzzled inquisition as to the difference.

Unfortunately, time in this instance has reduced the distinction between a sofa and a couch so that today the two terms are largely interchangeable.  According to our friends at Collins Dictionary, a sofa is "an upholstered seat with back and arms for two or more people" and a couch is "a piece of upholstered furniture, usually having a back and armrests, for seating more than one person.  It is also a bed, especially one used in the daytime and by the patients of a doctor or a psychoanalyst."

If you drag out your history books, the differentiation becomes a tad clearer.  In simplistic terms, a couch is a piece of furniture that you recline on whereas a sofa is for two or more people to sit on.

To quote the historians, a couch "can be used as a sofa by day and a bed by night"; "in the 17th  and 18th century a couch was usually an armless chair with a greatly elongated seat with a slanted and sometimes hinged back used for reclining or sleeping during the day"; "in the late middle ages the couch signified a daybed".

Given that the term couch also means to "lay down" and that the couch has strong links to doctors and psychologists rooms, the distinction seems clearer - it would appear that whoever coined the phrase "couch potato" had a strong appreciation of history.

Sofa originates from the dias on which a Grand Vizier (Muslim high official) sat in the 17th century.  The sofa evolved from the upholstered armchair.  Today the term sofa is largely synonymous with settee, despite the settee beginning life as a double chair furnished with cushions.  Into the 19th century, the sofa was often thought of as a ladies' lounging seat furnishing the drawing rooms of wealthy homes.  It was not until the industrial revolution that sofas began to appear in the homes of the general populous. 

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