The Grammarphobia Blog

Period furniture

Q: The terms “ottoman,” “divan,” “settee,” and “sofa” seem to have been used in Victorian England. Were they known earlier? Are they interchangeable? Do they come from Turkish, Persian, or some other Eastern culture? As a writer of historical fiction, I must get this right!

A: The nouns “ottoman,” “divan,” “settee,” and “sofa” overlap here and there, but they’re not interchangeable. What’s more, some meanings have shifted over the years, so writers of historical fiction have to be on their toes in describing period furniture.

What these all have in common is a level base, usually cushioned or upholstered. The differences mostly have to do with the extras—that is, whether they have arms, a back, neither of those features, or both of them.

Etymologically, most of these terms come from Arabic or Persian and entered English in the 17th and 18th centuries. We’ll examine them one at a time, beginning with “ottoman” (since you mentioned it first).

“Ottoman,” derived from Arabic, entered English in the late 18th century in the furniture sense: an armless, backless seat or footrest that may also have hidden storage space inside. This is the definition given in the Oxford English Dictionary: “A low upholstered seat without a back or arms, typically serving also as a box, with the seat hinged to form a lid.”

As a furniture term, “ottoman” comes from the earlier adjective “Ottoman,” meaning Turkish, a word derived from Uṯmān (Othman), the Arabic name for Osman I, founder of the Turkish (or “Ottoman”) empire. The furniture was “probably so called to suggest the Oriental style of the seat,” according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

The furniture term was recorded in French as ottomane in 1729 and was borrowed into English 50 years later, according to OED citations. The French word for the item, Oxford says, was also borrowed by other European languages: German (Ottomane, 1772 or earlier); Italian (ottomana, 1797); Spanish (otomana, 1849); and Catalan (otomana, 1888).

The OED’s earliest use in English is from a memorandum written by Thomas Jefferson on Aug. 19, 1789, when he was in France: “Pd. [paid] for an Ottomane of velours d’Utrecht.”

The dictionary’s most recent example is from the autumn 2001 issue of the Art Room Catalogue: “This hugely versatile and attractive ottoman serves as a seat, a footstool or even an occasional table.”

In Oxford’s 19th-century British quotations, people are described as sitting on ottomans (sometimes two at a time), as well as resting their feet on them.

“Divan,” derived from Persian, entered English in the late 1690s in the furniture sense: a long, raised platform against a wall, or a couch-like affair with no back or arms. Here’s the OED definition: “Originally: a long seat consisting of a continued step, bench, or raised part of the floor, against the wall of a room, which may be furnished with cushions, so as to form a kind of sofa or couch. Now usually: a low bed or couch with no back or ends.”

As John Ayto writes in his Dictionary of Word Origins, “The word divan has a long and spectacularly variegated semantic history.”

In Persian, etymologists say, a dēvān was originally a small book or collection of documents. Later this came to mean a register or an account book, and later still the office of an accountant or other government official. Eventually, Ayto says, the Persian word broadened to mean “various chambers and the bodies that occupied them, such as tax offices, customs collectors, courts, and councils of state.”

Typically, the walls of these chambers were lined with long seats, and consequently a dēvān came to mean such a seat—a sense that passed from Persian into both Arabic (dīwān) and Turkish (divān), and from them into the European languages.

In fact, many of the Persian meanings of dēvān filtered into French and then into English, OED citations show. For example, “divan” was first recorded in English as “an Oriental council of state” in 1586, and as a Turkish council hall or chamber of justice sometime before 1597.

The sense of a “divan” as a long seat was first recorded in English in the late 17th century.  Here’s the OED citation: “These Duans are a sort of low stages … elevated about sixteen or eighteen inches or more, above the floar. … Upon these the Turks eat, sleep, smoake, receive visits, say their prayers, &c.” (From Henry Maundrell’s A Journey From Aleppo to Jerusalem, published in 1703. Maundrell, who died in 1701, based the book on a diary he kept during a voyage made in the spring of 1697.)

The word for the seat is spelled “divan” in the OED’s next citation (dated 1702) and all that follow. But for more than a century it referred only to Eastern interiors as described in travel memoirs, fiction, or foreign political reporting. It wasn’t used to mean a piece of European furniture until the mid-19th century. This is the earliest sighting in Oxford:

“The bed being soft and comfortable, Mr. Quilp determined to use it, both as a sleeping place by night and as a kind of Divan by day” (from Charles Dickens’s novel The Old Curiosity Shop, 1841).

We found this earlier American example: “Also a charge of one hundred dollars for one divan and eight cushions” (from the Boston Atlas, May 2, 1840). The article, an anonymous opinion piece, described President Martin Van Buren’s bills for furnishing the White House with “foreign trash” in 1837, the year he took office.

As far as we can tell, “divan” wasn’t common in Western furniture terminology until the early 20th century. Oxford’s next example is from 1919, and according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, the term in its Western sense had its heyday in the 1930s and ’40s.

“Settee,” a native English word from the early 1700s, usually means a bench or modest-sized sofa. The OED definition: “A seat (for indoors) holding two or more persons, with a back and (usually) arms; occasionally also with divisions.”

The dictionary says this word is “perhaps” a variant of the older noun “settle,” which originated in Old English in the late 800s and meant something to sit on, like a chair, bench, or stool. According to OED citations, “settle” survived into Victorian times but in the narrower sense of a long wooden bench.

As for a “settee,” it may be wooden or upholstered. The OED’s first citation is from a 1716 issue of the London Gazette: “All Sorts of Hangings for Rooms and Stair-cases, Chairs, Settees and Screens.” In those days, “hangings” meant wallpapers and decorator fabrics.

In Victorian England, “settee” would have been a common enough term for a bench or smallish sofa. One 1840 example in the OED compares a “settee” to a “double-arm’d chair.”

“Sofa,” derived from Arabic, entered written English in the early 1700s in its modern sense, defined in the OED as “a long, stuffed seat with a back and ends or end, used for reclining; a form of lounge or couch.”

However, it meant something different a century earlier, when it was first borrowed into English from the Arabic ṣoffah. In the early 1600s, it meant a kind of cushioned dais found in Eastern countries. The OED defines “sofa” in the Eastern sense as “a part of the floor raised a foot or two, covered with rich carpets and cushions.”

So in its earliest uses, beginning in 1625, “sofa” appeared in travel memoirs describing the chambers of sultans, viziers, and other potentates.

The word in its modern Western sense, according to the OED, was first recorded in English a century later in a description of an Italian interior: “The Bridegroom sits on a very low sort of seat not unlike an oriental sofa.” (An entry by the philosopher George Berkeley, dated Jan. 20, 1717, in journals kept during a trip to Italy.)

Soon “sofa” became more common, though occasionally its spelling varied, as in these OED examples: “On her Sophee she sits, Vouchsafing audience to contending Wits” (from The Universal Passion, 1727, a satire by Edward Young). “I threw myself on a soffa” (from Samuel Richardson’s 1753 novel Sir Charles Grandison).

As words go, “sofa” has been uncommonly useful. (It was also adopted, as sofa, into French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese.) It was very common throughout the 19th century and it still is. It’s held its own against other words used today for the same thing. It’s somewhat less popular than “couch” but far more common than “davenport.”

“Couch,” derived from French in the 1300s, meant a bed for most of its history, though by the 19th century it denoted something like a chaise-longue with a low back and one end-piece. “Davenport,” meaning the same as “sofa,” is a late 19th-century term, probably taken from the name of an American manufacturer.

We’ll end a quotation from the New York Times Magazine, June 21, 1981: “There used to be a split on davenport and sofa; now the split is between sofa and couch.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language. For a change of pace, read Chapter 1 of Swan Song, a novel.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.