The Grammarphobia Blog

Seating arrangements

Q: At my Chicago grandparents’ home we sat on the “couch”; at my Alton (south-central Illinois) grandparents’ home we sat on the “divan,” but I also heard the word “davenport.” I’ve lived in New Jersey since 1969, and I now use “sofa” or “couch” interchangeably. Can you shed some light on these words?

A: Let’s begin with “davenport.” In mid-19th-century England, it was a small writing table or desk, and in late-19th-century America it was a large, upholstered sofa or couch.

Why a “davenport”? Both pieces of furniture are thought to have been named for their manufacturer, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

“Divan,” a much older word, was borrowed into English from the Turkish divan, which came from the Persian devan.

When it entered English in the 16th century, “divan” meant a council of state presided over by the sultan or grand vizier.

Later it came to mean the hall where such a “divan” was held, and still later, in the 18th century, the backless sofa or couch on which Turks received visitors.

The OED‘s first citation for this sense of the word is from a 1702 translation of Cornelis de Bruyn’s travel book A Voyage to the Levant: “Their greatest Magnificence consists in their Divans or Sofas.”

The heap of words we have for that long piece of furniture is a great illustration of the richness of English.

We can call it a “couch,” a “sofa,” a “davenport,” a “settee,” a “divan,” a “lounge,” or a “chesterfield” (a favorite term among Canadians and some Californians).

The word you use may depend not only on the region you’re from, but also on how old you are.

It appears that “davenport,” once a common term in the upper Midwest, has largely been consigned to the antique shop. Today’s living room is more likely to have a “couch” or a “sofa.”

In the early 1950s, a survey asked more than 200 people in the upper Midwest what they called “the long piece of furniture to sit or stretch out on.” (They were allowed to choose more than one word.)

The results, published in 1973-76 in the Linguistic Atlas of the Upper Midwest, showed that 75 percent of the respondents said “davenport.” The also-rans were “sofa” (41%), “couch” (40%), “lounge” (35%), and “settee” (25%).

A generation later, however, things had changed. The author of the atlas, Harold B. Allen, wrote in 1989 that “today, not quite four decades later, sofa is the fashionable designation and davenport is retained only by the oldest group.”

But wait, there’s more. Writing in the Journal of English Linguistics in 1995, J. K. Chambers reported the results of another survey, this one taken in the early ’90s among English speakers in the US and Canada in the vicinity of Lake Ontario.

Of the Americans who were asked what they call that you-know-what, 81.2 percent said “couch,” another 12.5 percent said “sofa,” and 2.5 percent said “davenport.” (“Divan” wasn’t mentioned, though one respondent did say “love seat.”)

And we’re not through yet. The linguist Charles Boberg wrote in 2004: “In a survey conducted at McGill University from 1999 to 2004, 66% of 321 American respondents used couch, with 14% using sofa and none using chesterfield.”

So there you have it, if you can sort all this out. “Couch” and “sofa” are on top, though many older people in the upper Midwest still like “davenport.”

And incidentally, the favorites, “couch” and “sofa,” also happen to be older than the others.

We’ve already talked about “davenport” and “divan.” Here, very briefly, are the sources of the other terms, along with the dates they first appeared in English, courtesy of the Oxford English Dictionary.

1340: “couch,” from the French coucher (to put to bed); it was originally for lying down.

1625: “sofa,” ultimately from the Arabic soffah; it originally meant a raised area, covered with carpet and cushions, used for seating.

1716: “settee,” perhaps a variation of “settle,” a ninth-century word for something to sit upon.

1830: “lounge,” from the verb (which is of uncertain origin); originally it was a kind of sofa for lying at full length.

1900: “chesterfield,” an overstuffed couch or sofa named for a 19th-century Earl of Chesterfield; the term is also used for a kind of overcoat.

I’ll stop here. The living room is getting a bit crowded.

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