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Are you sitting comfortably?

Regular readers of this blog may remember a recent poll in which we posed the following question:

What do you call the piece of furniture pictured below?

  • Sofa
  • Couch
  • Settee
  • Other

The results were as follows: 58% were in favour of sofa, 29% plumped for couch, settee was chosen by 9%, and 4% of respondents went for something else entirely.

Things look a little different when you consider the question from a USA v UK perspective. In terms of the UK, sofa was by far the word of choice, being three times as popular as its nearest rival settee. Couch limped in third, and perhaps the most surprising of all, no-one offered any alternatives. Compare this with the US, and the picture looks very different. Couch was the most popular, but was only marginally ahead of sofa in this regard. More people opted for ‘other’ than for settee, which is clearly not the name of choice across the pond.

Among the ‘other’ suggestions offered, love seat was the most popular choice, so clearly there are many romantics who read our blog (mainly from the United States). Honourable mentions must go to the alternatives some voters offered: davenport and chesterfield. These in particular illustrate regional variation beautifully, as to British ears they sound rather arch, whereas in North America they are merely descriptive of a particular style and brand.

Any idea which of these items we have been parking ourselves on for the longest? That award goes to ‘couch’, which the OED records as far back as a1500:

a1500 (1450) Merlin (1899) xxix. 580 Thei … satte doun on a cowche that was covered with a cloth of silke.

The first recorded instance of ‘sofa’ dates to the early part of the 18th century, as this quotation illustrates:

1717 G. Berkeley Jrnl. Tour Italy in Wks. (1871) IV. 530 The bridegroom sits on a very low sort of seat not unlike an oriental sofa.

So, different names for comfy places to sit have been around for over 500 years – that’s a lot of reading / lounging / TV-watching…