Q&A: Couch vs sofa vs lounge

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week we are just lounging around…

Q: Hi AWC, I hope you’re sitting down for this week’s topic.

A: Why?

Q: Because it’s a question from Nic about what we should call that big long comfy share-chair in the living room. Is it a couch? A sofa? Or a lounge?

A: Ah, well, the main two players worldwide are “couch” and “sofa”. Sofa is more common in Britain, while couch is preferred in North America, Ireland, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia.

Q: Is there a difference?

A: They basically mean the same thing, but historically there was a difference. A “couch” (from Old French “couchier”) dates back to the 14th century and the term referred to reclining or lying down. Traditionally it was constructed with a half-height back and raised at just one end (like a bed pillow).

Q: And a sofa?

A: It’s a newer word – coming to us in the 1600s via Arabic “suffah” meaning “a bench of stone or wood”. It was typically more of an engineered piece of furniture and capable of seating at least four people. It had a full height back and both side arms raised.

Q: Sofa so good.

A: Hilarious.

Q: But what about “lounge”? Nic uses this one but never sees it used in books.

A: That’s probably true, as “lounge” is a very Australian-centric word; basically another name for a couch, or one that might be modular in design. Even New Zealanders find it odd that we call both the furniture and the room it sits in a “lounge”.

Q: But dictionaries do recognise it, right?

A: America’s Merriam-Webster does, but Oxford Dictionaries doesn’t. Here in Australia, the Macquarie DIctionary simply lists lounge as “a sofa or couch”. And in all cases, it’s never the first noun meaning – that’s reserved for the room. So the reason Nic probably won’t see it in books is that it could cause confusion for the reader. It’s easier to choose “couch” or “sofa” instead.

Q: Sofa seems more formal than a couch.

A: Yes, that’s a distinction many make and it’s true that it sometimes has more of a chair-like structure. But for most, “couch” and “sofa” are fairly interchangeable these days.

Q: Are there any other words?

A: There sure are. In Britain, where “sofa” is preferred, another favourite is the “settee” – traditionally a sofa without any side arms. And a “divan” is more of a bed, often put against the wall as it has no back or side arms. Both of these arrived into English around 1700.

Q: And let’s not forget the chaise lounge…

A: Well, traditionally there was no such thing – as it’s actually a “chaise lonGUE” – French for “long chair” but it has been corrupted so much over the years that many accept the “lounge” version, especially here in Australia. However, in literature, we recommend sticking with “longue”.

Q: Sounds like a good idea in the longue run. Any final comments?

A: Yep. “Lounge” is not the only area-specific name. The Boston area of US has the “davenport” and in Canada, a “chesterfield” (named after the Earl of Chesterfield) is another name for couch. In other areas, a “chesterfield” is more specifically a deep-buttoned leather sofa.

Q: We’ve come sofa today.

A: Really? Using the same joke twice?

Q: You’re right. I think I need to have a lie down on my futon.

A: Fun fact – in Japan, a futon is a floor bed, while the western “futon” is more of a type of sofa bed.

Q: Yes, that’s the one. Well, we’ve come to the end – this week’s discussion is sofa.

A: Oh dear…

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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