Design Dictionary: What's the Difference Between a Couch and a Sofa?

Design Dictionary: What's the Difference Between a Couch and a Sofa?

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Taryn Williford
Sep 8, 2015

Here on Apartment Therapy, we tend to use "sofa" and "couch" interchangeably to refer to the place where you might entertain friends or plop down with a blanket for a Netflix marathon. But do the two words really mean the same thing? Where did they come from? And what, then, are a settee and a loveseat?

Couch

Origin: The word "couch" comes from the French verb coucher, which translates to "to lie down."

Distinction: None, really, between a couch and a sofa. The only difference is in the connotation. People tend to prefer the word couch when they're talking about a casual, un-stuffy room. A "couch" is a place to lie down and veg out. Usually three or more cushions.

Sofa

Origin: The word "sofa" originated from suffah, an Arabic word that referred to a wood or stone bench.

Distinction: Again, it's about connotation here. Most people use sofa when they're trying to be fancy, or trying to charge you more at the showroom. A "sofa" is more of a proper place to sit than a lie-down couch.

An NPR article by Linton Weeks called "The Deep-Seated Meaning Of The American Sofa" features a great quote by Benjamin Parzybok, author of the novel Couch:

"The couch is the thrash-able object at the center of a well-used living room, upon whose back toddlers straddle, whose cushions teenager become permanent fixtures, and which, at the end of the day, after the children are in bed, a couple might relax with a short glass of bourbon.

"A sofa, on the other hand, sits under a trimly hung painting and lives in a house in which traffic passes it by. It would be white, of course, or another color begging for stain. And most people living at the house of a sofa would be forbidden to sit upon it at one time or another."

Loveseat

Origin: It's where you sit when you're in love. It's a mini-couch intended for just two people to sit cozy together.

Distinction: It's much shorter than a couch. Usually two cushions.

Settee

Origin: The word "settee" comes from the Old English word setl, which was used to describe long benches with high backs and arms.

Distinction: A proper settee should really have a high back and arms (like an extra-wide chair), but people use the word to describe all manner of upholstered mutli-seat furniture, it seems. It's shorter in length than a sofa, and sometimes has a higher seat height.

Sectional

Origin: It's a couch, in sections.

Distinction: It's a couch, in sections. Usually two to four pieces that fit together interchangeably and meet at a corner or angle (the "L" shape and "U" shape).

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