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

updated Nov 19, 2019
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(Image credit: Nancy Mitchell)

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.”

(Image credit: Leanne Bertram)

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.

(Image credit: Lincoln Barbour)

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 multi-seat furniture, it seems. It’s shorter in length than a sofa, and sometimes has a higher seat height.

(Image credit: Marie-Lyne Quirion)

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).

→ This is What Your Sofa Says About You

Re-edited from a post that originally appeared 09.08.2015. — AH