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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.

14 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

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