We went out on Sunday to the mall to buy some socks. I don’t know what happens to them, but for some reason about every five years I have to buy more of the damn things as their predecessors go AWOL one by one. I bought seven pairs in a pack, very nifty ones made in China with colour coded heel and toe inserts which means each sock can be reunited with its correct mate when they come out of the washing machine. But this post isn’t about socks. On our way out of the mall we dropped in to the House and Home to look at microwaves, and emerged about twenty minutes later the proud owners of a new leather lounge suite. This was a spur-of-the-moment purchase, but still necessary–the old cane suite has become increasingly rickety and lumpy for some time and is now the property of the dog.
Now this has caused words to be exchanged between myself and the owner of my heart, Scallywag. There have been no recriminations as to cost, or the tastefulness or otherwise of the colour or design, the problem is that I call the two elements of the suite that seat more than one person sofas, and she calls them couches.
“Couches are things you recline on, like a psychiatrist’s couch, or the things the astronauts lie on during launch,” I say.
“Have you ever heard of a sofa potato?” She counters.
Well, there’s only one way for a rational person to solve such a dispute, and that is to gather relevant facts and decide therefrom the truth of the matter. I do not own and am not a subscriber to the OED (I’m keeping the funds required for subscription to finance the first manned mission to Mars), which would in all probability provide the definitive answer. But the internet has abundant free resources and the means of finding them. For the benefit of others who may be experiencing the same domestic tensions, here are my findings.
The Online Etymology Dictionary has this to say about the word ‘sofa’:
1620s, “raised section of a floor, covered with carpets and cushions,” from Turk. sofa, from Arabic suffah “bench.” Meaning “long stuffed seat for reclining” is recorded from 1717
Oh dear, this isn’t promising. The same source has this to say for ‘couch’:
mid-14c., from O.Fr. couche (12c.) “a bed, lair,” from coucher “to lie down,” from L. collocare (see couch (v.)). Traditionally, a couch has the head end only raised, and only half a back; a sofa has both ends raised and a full back; a settee is like a sofa but may be without arms; an ottoman has neither back nor arms, nor has a divan, the distinctive feature of which is that it goes against a wall. Couch potato first recorded 1979.
Aha! That’s better. Our sofas have both ends raised and a full back, therefore they are definitely sofas and not couches. But we can’t get away with one source only; we must confirm our findings, so let’s see what the Online Oxford Dictionary has to say, first for ‘sofa’:
a long upholstered seat with a back and arms, for two or more people:[as modifier] :sofa cushions
Early 17th century: from French, based on Arabic suffa
And now for ‘couch’:
…a long upholstered piece of furniture for several people to sit on…
By that definition what we have is both a sofa and a couch, but it’s more sofa than couch. So we are both right, but I am more right than she.
Grumpy Old Man by Mark Widdicombe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License