A Couch by Any Other Name

by Keith Lobo

The Bertram Custom SofaWatching movies, catching a nap, curled up reading. You do all of these things on a couch. Or is it a sofa? A chesterfield?  

What you call that particular piece of furniture may depend on where you live: Britons prefer “sofa,” Americans like “couch,” and Canadians tend toward “couch,” with “chesterfield” still used occasionally. (At VHB, we side with the Brits.)

While the three terms are considered synonymous, some will argue that there are distinct points of difference between them.

The Canadian Oxford Dictionary defines a couch as “an upholstered piece of furniture for several people; a sofa.”

But is a sofa a couch? Not really. The words are often used interchangeably but they are not technically the same. The etymology of the words gives the first clues as to their differences. The word “couch” stems from the Old French word “coucher,” which means to lie down or sleep. The word sofa comes from the Arabic word “suffa” which refers to a long bench covered with cushions used for seating.

The first couches were used primarily for resting and had either no arms or a single arm. Think of the “fainting couch” used by Victorian women, lightheaded from being cinched tightly into corsets as was the fashion of the day. Couches also tend to have tapered backs and may more closely resemble what we now know as divans or chaises. Sofas, on the other hand, have two arms and a uniform back. They are typically larger and designed to seat more people. (We found this information on eBay of all places.)

The Midge Custom SofaAnd what, exactly, is a chesterfield? It is closer in form to a sofa, although the word is also used interchangeably with “couch.” Its dictionary definition describes it as a padded sofa with arms the same height as the back, while Entangled English specifies that a chesterfield has buttons and is often made of leather. The term is thought to be related to the Earl of Chesterfield, but there seems to be no definitive proof of that connection. Use of the word is more common in Canada than anywhere else, although it is a bit dated now.

No matter what you call that thing people sit on in their living rooms, you can find it at VHB. We have a wide selection of eco-friendly, custom sofas that can be tailored to your exact space and design aesthetic. Browse our offerings on our Custom Sofas page.

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