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shameless pleading

Chesterfield, Sofa, Couch, Settee

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 words1@word-detective.com.

39 comments to Chesterfield, Sofa, Couch, Settee

  • Dave Ross

    Could duo or dufoo be related to duvet?

  • Aife N.

    “Dufo” might just be a misspelling of duvet. Interestingly, when I Googled this, Dufo means both (somehow) a dufus and a person that does amazing things for their friends/family. I wouldn’t take this too seriously-Urban Dictionary (where I got this from) was the first result; then this page, then several sites offering to find “Dufo” or to make “Dufo”.

  • Sofas

    Oh it’s odd that you mention this – I’ve just purchased a top quality sofa set for my lounge and have to say I absolutely love it! It’s a stunning 3 item set, in brown floral design. Just felt the urge to share that :)

  • Carole Bender-Resnick

    In Canada, we call a couch a chesterfield.

  • Chester Field

    No no no. In Canada we do not call a couch a chesterfield. In Canada OLD PEOPLE call it a chesterfield!! :)

    • Angela

      I’m not old and I refer to a couch as a chesterfield. Some people may simply becoming Americanized from too much media! So yes in Canada we use the word chesterfield.

      • Saxon

        I don’t think this is an americanization thing as I am from AB and just discovered the word chesterfield and no one i know (including parents) have ever heard of the term

    • Michael

      Yes in Canada we use Chesterfield as well as couch. Sofa is used but it isn’t used nearly as much as couch. People whose families came from England would be the main source of “chesterfield” and it is the term I use 90% of the time, followed by couch. I rarely use any other term for this piece of furniture. A young Australian on a work holiday in Toronto didn’t know what a chesterfield was so it is probably known best in England and English speaking Canada

  • Radamus

    I agree with the above chesterfield comment; yes, my nana used to say chesterfield, but I generally say couch.. even sofa is pretty rare nowadays.

    The Canadian military has an affection for the word settee, which generally was observed to be an armless couch.

  • Ross

    I do not like the word couch and sofa is still used. Any furniture store has signs saying sofa and chair, not couch and chair. And specialty stores are not called Couchland but Sofaland. But I think terminology has to do with where in North America you live. I looked up this site because I heard a Bare Naked Ladies song today and was reminded that they use the word chesterfield.

  • Kelley Wright

    My father used to call the couch something that sounded like dovino or davino, almost like domino. he was born in 1921 in the Midwest. I have never heard this word used by anyone else. Might be related to the above question.

  • Shannon

    I have family who grew up in Detroit in the 1910’s-60’s. According to them, the dufo was a couch with a “hide-a-bed”. The bed would fold, or “do fold”, into a couch. That’s how it was explained to me.

  • Henry

    Quoting from the text above: ‘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.’

    Is it a transitive or intransitive verb? Is to “to lay” something or “to lie” down?

  • chris

    fascinating…. dufo and especially dufoo especially ring a little French to me… similar to the surname Dufour (when pronounced with a French accent). Chesterfield is a surname and after all Detroit is the French word for straight. If anybody has the time and more ambition than I, perhaps some research into old retailers of furniture in Detroit might turn up something like “Dufour’s Emporium of Fine Settees” 1889-1912….. anyway, words are fun!!

  • Robert Crawford

    In the rural Pacific Northwest, I grew up hearing the word “davino”–emphasis on the first syllable–used interchangeably with “sofa” and “couch.” Heard “Davenport” now and then, but never had the sense that “davino” was an abbreviation or slang term for the proper name.

    • Kevin Kingrey

      Yep, Daveno was definitely a PNW thing.

      It may have even caught on at my house for a time when I was a kid, but we pretty much called it Davenport, Divan, Couch, Sofa, all the above.

  • Susan Page

    Growing up in North Eastern Ohio, many of our grandparents refered to the sofa as a davenport. They were more likely to refer to it as such if it was in the formal living room.
    Apparently the name comes from the A H Davenport Furniture Co. Who knows how it came only to refer to the sofa / couch. You can find it used in such a manner in literature as far back as the 1890’s, then in early american radio programs. It’s common use seems to have died out after the war except amongst our grandparents, few of whom I imagine remain living.

  • Amelia Weston

    Chesterfield sofa originated in the 17th century in the city of Chesterfield. This sofa is also known as the king of sofas and has a few distinctive features: its rolled arms, the back and arms of the same height, diamond tufting etc. You can get more info from http://ahernsfurniture.co.uk/

  • Any furniture store has signs saying sofa and chair, not couch and chair. And specialty stores are not called Couchland but Sofaland.They were more likely to refer to it as such if it was in the formal living room

  • CathyVergison

    Chesterfield is definitely an Ontario thing

  • Jackie

    Grew up in Louisiana. We called our sofa a “deux fold” whether it folded into a bed or not. There was no other word that I can remember using.

    • Kevin Kingrey

      Duex fold; Dufo. That totally makes sense.

      A lot of people migrated up route 61 from the delta, and I’m sure they packed their colloquialisms right alongside their Duex folds.

  • Tapeworm_Terry

    I’m from Ontario only ever heard my Grandma say Chesterfield.

  • Murray Hayes

    After reading all the comments here, I can only assume that the terms couch, sofa and setee are personal choices for the same thing; and that Davenport and Chesterfield are brand names.

  • I was brought up in London uk we always called what we had a chesterfield. The term sofa and settee also couch were used. couch and settee were probably for lying on, sofa and chesterfield for 3 or 4 people to sit.

  • Harley Shelley

    I grew up in Portland, Oregon in the 1930s and I only heard a davenport called a davenport.In other areas occasionally heard it called a sofa.

  • Fliss

    Well, I call it a settee…….which I confess I DID hope might be a nice upmarket Anglo-Indian word……no such luck…..the humblest of the bunch. My dog calls it BED.

  • Jeanne C

    Thank you. I was wondering about the difference between a couch & a sofa. I do a lot of charting & sofa is quicker but i did wonder if i was using it correctly.

  • Lynne

    Could she possibly have been saying ‘davino’. I used to hear that one a lot.

  • Vancouverite

    I grew up in YVR and we called the sofa a chesterfield. I also heard settee once in a while. Now though we use both sofa and couch. It would be nice to try to bring back Canadianisms like chesterfield.

  • Wroots

    Aife N – And I thought Canada was supposed to be bilingual! Duvet means “down” in French, and that is what is used for stuffing the higher quality duvets. Cheaper duvets are stuffed with feathers, and the cheapest of all are stuffed with synthetic fibres. Duvets are now the most common form of bed covering, especially in northern Europe. They became popular throughout the world in the late 20th century. In Britain, a duvet was originally called a continental quilt.

  • Wroots

    There are many opinions on the origin of the word “chesterfield” as a description of the item we now know as such. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the use of the word chesterfield was already used in England in the 1800’s to describe a leather couch.

    It is believed that Lord Phillip Stanhope, the 4th Earl of Chesterfield (1694-1773), commissioned the first leather chesterfield settee with its distinctive deep buttoned, quilted leather upholstery and low seat base. Aside from being a much-admired politician and writer, patron of Voltaire, the Earl was a known trendsetter. Apparently the Earl requested a local craftsman to construct a piece of furniture that would allow a gentleman to sit upright in the utmost of comfort allowing sitting without wrinkling the garment. This was the original purpose of the chesterfield sofa with its characteristic deep buttoned upholstery, rolled arms, equal back and arm height and nail head trim.

    The original Chesterfield settees did not recline because the purpose of the settee was to allow a gentleman to sit upright. In other words, it wasn’t made for lounging.

    Cathy Vergison – Chesterfields are most definitely not an “Ontario thing” at all. They are and always have been English.
    Chesterfields are still made in Manchester today and are very high quality and very expensive.

  • Eileen June Burke

    Is m British now living in Canada. I have only ever heard the term Settee used in my family. I have heard the term Chesterfield used by my late mother in law, but never in Britain.

  • Kevin Kingrey

    I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, in several towns all over both Oregon (Orygun) and Washington (Warsh-ington). I distinctly remember the name “Daveno” being spoken when hosts were pointing house guests towards the sofa. This wasn’t just a one-off, I can remember it in different houses and different towns through the 60’s and 70’s, but not much after that. Pretty sure this is a regional derivation of “Divan”, and Chicago could have the same thing going on, just slightly doofier sounding.

  • Patricia

    I remember when I was growing up in the Pacific Northwest my grandmother who had come from upstate New York, had always called their couch a davenport, but my parents called their’s a Devan or a sofa.
    When I purchased my set it was labled as a “sofa, loveseat and chair recliner!”

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