The first thing that many of us do after a long day at work is throw ourselves onto the sofa. Or Is it a couch?
Heck, some people even call it a settee. The terms sofa and couch are often used interchangeably.
Some people stick to one term, whilst others flip between the two, but we all know what is being referred to- the long, comfortable seat you find in the living room.
The Couch And The Sofa: The Same Thing?
You may have wondered if there is actually any difference between a sofa and a couch, or whether they are simply two words used to describe the same thing.
If you have, then you’ve come to the right place. In this article, we’ll be looking at the differences between a couch and a sofa.
No, they’re not the same thing, and the most significant differences lie in the historical origins of both words. Let’s take a look at the couch first.
What Is A Couch?
The word couch has a very distinct and traceable origin. It comes from the French word ‘couche’, a derivative of the french verb ‘coucher’, which means ‘to lie down’.
Already, we’re getting to the heart of the difference between a couch and a sofa. A couch, historically, was a piece of furniture not necessarily meant for sitting on, but for lying down on, reclining on, or perhaps even sleeping on.
Think about the couch you might see in a psychiatrist’s office, for example. It’s designed for laying back on, either with just one arm or no arms at all.
In many ways it is similar to the chaise lounge. You might also have heard of the term ‘fainting couch’, which was a couch allegedly designed for Victorian women, wearing extremely tight-fitting corsets, to take a breather on.
However, there is limited evidence that this style of couch was ever marketed this way in the 19th century, with the term only first documented in the early 20th century.
There’s no denying, though, that the fainting couch style, with the back raised at one end, was popular in the 19th century.
Some way or another, the word couch crept into popular usage in large parts of the English-speaking world, namely North America, South Africa, and Australia, to describe the long, comfortable seating area in a casual setting regardless of whether it meets the historical criteria for what constitutes a couch.
What Is A Sofa?
It seems like a bit of a silly question, really- we all know what a sofa is. Merriam-Webster’s definition is ‘a long upholstered seat usually with arms and a back and often convertible into a bed’.
We’d add to that it typically seats two or more people, but there’s not a lot to disagree with there. So where does the word ‘sofa’ come from?
Well, whilst the word has Persian roots, it comes from the Arabic word ‘suffah’ which means ‘bench’ or ‘ledge’.
So, once again, by looking at the origin of the words, we can start to understand what the difference between a sofa and a couch is.
Of course, you can lie down on a sofa, but the word’s etymological roots heavily imply that a sofa is meant for sitting down on.
Whilst used interchangeably in North America, in the United Kingdom, Ireland, and India the term sofa is preferred to the term couch.
Some people argue that the term sofa is slightly more formal than the term couch, but there is another term used in the United Kingdom and some other parts of the anglosphere that could be considered more formal again.
What Is A Settee?
In the United Kingdom in particular, the word sofa is less interchangeable with couch, which is rarely used, than it is with settee, which is still used fairly commonly.
Again, though, there is a slight difference between a sofa and a settee. The word settee was historically used to describe a long bench with a high back and arms.
It didn’t even necessarily have to be upholstered, though they often were. Nowadays the term settee is typically used in the UK to describe a slightly more formal, often slightly shorter in length sofa.
It is rarely reclined on, instead meant firmly for seating purposes, guests in particular.
The word settee has its origins in the old English word ‘setl’. Think, say, of settling down, and you can see where the term came from.
Why Do Some Parts Of The Word Say Sofa And Others Say Couch?
As we noted, couch is much more common in North America, whereas in the British Isles and in India, the word sofa is preferred. This is probably largely because of differences in history and geography.
North America, particularly the United States, very possibly adopted the term couch more readily due to the large influx of European immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries.
It makes sense that European immigrants would be more likely to adopt, or indeed bring with them, a term that had continental European origins.
It also makes sense that in the United Kingdom, India, and Ireland that the term sofa is preferred, as a legacy of the British Empire and the contact the UK had through the empire with the middle east, where the term sofa has its origins.
India, of course, is comparatively close in geographic terms to Persia and the Middle East.
Finally - Is There A Right Or Wrong Word?
Based on the origins of both words, there is little doubt that technically the right word for the long, upholstered seat that you sit down to watch the TV is a sofa.
The word couch originally referred to an item of furniture meant to be laid down on. Indeed, most listings for these products use the term sofa, too.
Couch is undoubtedly the less formal term, and for that reason some people simply prefer it. It has a more comfortable ‘feel’ to it.
The reality is that the terms are used interchangeably these days, despite their origins as slightly different types of furniture. The US isn’t the only country where this happens.
In the UK, sofa and settee are used interchangeably like sofa and couch are here.
For all intents and purposes, there is no right or wrong word for that piece of furniture that you flop down onto after a long day at work.