Appreciating the couch, or whatever you call it
I am the only person I know who’s too lazy to sit on the couch and watch TV. I lack the requisite energy. By the time I figure out how to work the remote, I’m ready for a nap.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t respect the sofa. In these times of quarantined boredom, the living room couch is a lifeboat in a sea of contagion. It’s a good reason to stay home.
Couch? Sofa? What’s the difference?
Good question. Geography is a partial but inadequate explanation. “Couch” has been more traditional in North America, Australia, and Ireland. Yet in those countries’ motherland, “sofa” predominates. In South America, it’s pronounced “sofá.”
A more complete answer lies in history and etymology — the source of the words. The Norman invasion of 1066 brought the word “couche” from France, where it derived from the verb “coucher,” to lie down. This was furniture that the English had been sorely lacking.
The word in modern French, however, is “canapé.” That word in English, of course, refers to a type of hors d’oeuvre. The derivation is understandable. A slab of fish on a tuft of bread bears an uncanny resemblance to a couch potato poised for an early season ballgame.
Sofa, on the other hand, comes from an Arabic word pronounced “suffa,” referring to a bench or ledge. Yes, Arabic, the language that also gave us “ottoman,” “alcohol” and “zero.”
In Aramaic — language Jesus spoke — the word was “sippa,” though it referred to something more like a mat. It is interesting to note that in the New Testament’s only reference to Jesus sleeping, he was sacked out on what was arguably a rudimentary sofa. (Mark 4:35-41)
Given the historical roots of couch and sofa, one could say that a couch is for lying on, the sofa more for sitting on. So a couch would reside in the privacy of the living room, while a sofa would be found in the parlor for chats with guests.
And as long as we’re on that topic, let me clarify: one lies, not lays, on a couch, unless one is a chicken, in which case, please, do it outside.
The word most common in anglophone Canada is “chesterfield,” named after Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield, who commissioned one for his sedentary preferences—leather, dimpled, and low-slung. Whether those preferences explain his two illegitimate sons is not known, but it should be noted that at one point he held the position of Lord of the Bedchamber.
(Yes, recent grads, that is an actual job. But openings are few, and appointment by Royal Warrant is much more a matter of who, not what, you know.)
Astute readers are by now wondering what the deal is with the “fainting couch.” Contrary to common presumption, it has nothing to do with falling unconscious on a designated divan.
The fainting couch is identifiable by a high back at one end, sometimes wrapping around the side. If you think COVID-19 is bad, be glad you weren’t alive during the hysteria epidemic. It was so common that houses often had a fainting room for the fainting couch.
So whether you have a couch, sofa, canapé, divan, futon, or daybed, show it some respect. Appreciate its loyalty. Thank it for being there. Give it a pat on the back. Do what Jesus did: take a nap.
Glenn Cheney is a writer, translator, and managing editor of New London Librarium. He can be reached at glenn@NLLibrarium.com.
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