Couching potato, tattered settee.
Dear Word Detective: I’ve recently bought a new house and am getting ready to move my furniture, which has given my mom occasion to use (and even write out) the word “chesterfield” about a million times. I now find myself in a fascinating love/hate relationship with word. On the one hand, hearing my mom use it is like listening to a nail on a blackboard. On the other, I am finding it particularly hilarious for my own personal use with friends. I am wondering if you can tell me where the word “chesterfield” and, for that matter, “sofa” and “couch” originated. — Sean Kells.
Well, congratulations on your new house. Here at Go Figure Farm, we often spend Sunday morning watching a local real estate “showcase” on TV. Mostly we just quietly make fun of the homeowners’ taste, but lately I’ve begun to wonder at the agents’ grasp of architectural taxonomy. How in the world can a trapezoidal monstrosity with a two-story “great room” rightly be called a “classic Cape Cod”? What makes a humdrum 1960s split-level eligible for the label “Colonial”? The ornate pillars some doofus erected in the rumpus room? The Early American foosball table?
It’s a tribute to the natural human need to lounge that there are so many names for what we often call simply a “couch.” The term “couch” itself comes from the French “coucher,” meaning “to lay in place,” reflecting the original sense of a couch as a place for sleeping, not just sitting. “Sofa” comes from the Arabic “soffa,” which meant a raised part of the floor covered with carpets and pillows for seating. “Divan,” a term for “couch” your grandmother might have used, comes from the Persian “devan,” which originally meant “assembly of rulers,” but in English came to mean the padded platform upon which the leaders sat. “Settee,” yet another antiquated word for “couch,” is just a jocular form of “settle,” which as a noun used to mean “a place to sit.” The term “davenport” apparently comes from the name of a furniture manufacturer.
All of which brings us to “chesterfield,” meaning a style of couch with upright arms, one of which may be adjustable to allow the user to recline comfortably. It was named after the Earl of Chesterfield (a now obsolete title) in 19th century England, but the name is probably more evidence of clever marketing than any actual connection to nobility. The term “Chesterfield” is also used for a type of long single-breasted coat, often sporting a velvet collar.
While we’re on the subject, I recently received another “couch” question from a reader which is driving me slowly nuts. She grew up in Detroit in the 1950s, and her grandmother used the term “dufo” or “dufoo” for a couch. If anyone has any knowledge of the term, or anything remotely like it, please let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.