The item of furniture that is usually the centerpiece of a living room or family room or a lobby or waiting room goes by any one of many names, but they have useful distinctions in meaning. Here’s a rundown of sofa and its associated terms.
Sofa, ultimately from Arabic, originally denoted a raised carpeted floor, but it is now the primary term in American English for a long piece of furniture for seating. (A sectional sofa, often called simply a sectional, is formed from multiple pieces, two of which join at an angle so that the furniture can be placed in the corner of a room.) A settee—the relatively rare term stems from the Old English word setl—is a sofa, often with fewer cushions or none at all, with a back and (usually) arms.
Couch, ultimately from the Latin word collocare, meaning “lay or place,” is interchangeable with sofa but originally referred to a piece of furniture for lying down that was backless, with only the head raised. It is still used in this sense in reference to furniture on which a psychiatrist’s patient lies during a session. (“Casting couch” alludes to the practice in which a film or theater producer seduces someone on the piece of furniture in exchange for giving that person a role.)
Couch is also a verb with a seemingly unrelated meaning; originally, it referred to inlaying or overlaying gold, but it has also long had a sense of “put into words,” with the idea that a message is worded in such a way to obscure the truth or influence perception.
Canapé, adopted into English from French to refer to an elegantly styled sofa, derives from the Greek word for mosquito or gnat; it originally referred to a mosquito net. (The English word canopy is cognate, and canapé, referring to a type of appetizer, was inspired by the furniture term.) Squab, of Scandinavian origin, is an obscure synonym for couch that can also refer to a cushion.
The love seat, originally designed hundreds of years ago to accommodate one woman during an era when fashion dictated voluminous apparel, evolved into a piece of furniture that seated two people—often, a couple, hence the name. (It was also known as a courting chair.) A variation on the love seat is the tête-à-tête (the term, French for “head to head,” also refers to a private two-way conversation), which seats two people facing in opposite directions and separated by an S-shaped armrest.
A davenport (the name is that of a now-defunct furniture company that produced such furniture) is a large sofa that may or may not be able to be converted into a bed; the term is used primarily in the Midwest and in upstate New York, though it may refer elsewhere to a futon-style sofa. (Davenport is also the name of a compact writing desk such as that also manufactured by the same company.)
The traditional Japanese futon is a portable mattress, but in the United States and other Western countries, futon refers to a sofa topped with a cushion that can be unfolded to form a mattress when the frame is adjusted to serve as a bed. A chesterfield, meanwhile, is a davenport with upright armrests. The name, which survives primarily in Canada but also, interestingly, in Northern California, derives from an earl of Chesterfield who commissioned a style of furniture that became popular during the 1700s. (Chesterfield is also the name of a type of overcoat with a velvet collar.)
Several other terms denote convertible sofas: A daybed is a bed designed to be used as a sofa, a sofa bed is a sofa that can be unfolded to form a bed, and a studio couch—the name derives from the use of studio to refer to a small one-room apartment, not an artist’s chamber—is a backless couch with a cot that can be pulled out from underneath it and fitted alongside the couch to form a double bed.
A divan, meanwhile—the word derives ultimately from the Persian word for a book or a bundle of papers and later a government council—is a seat that is often armless and/or backless. (In the United Kingdom, the term refers to a type of bed.) Similar items designed for one person include the fainting couch, a small, narrow fully or partially backless sofa with one end raised. (The name originated in the nineteenth century, supposedly when constricting corsets required that such furniture be conveniently located for a woman short of breath to recline and recuperate.)
A recamier (named after the subject of a painting in which such an item appeared) resembles the fainting chair but is distinguished by having a curved high headrest and a matching low footrest. The chaise longue is a reclinable chair extended to provide support for the legs. (The second word is often spelled or at least pronounced in American English like lounge, though the term is French for “long chair.”)
An ottoman, though not technically a sofa, is often an accessory to one or to a chair; it is a backless, armless seat on which one can sit or put up one’s feet. Originally, the name applied to a couch for reclining, a style inspired by habits observed in the Ottoman Empire during the nineteenth century.
Bench, related to bank and with multiple meanings, refers in this context to a long, usually hard seat for two or more people. A banquette (the word, from French, is a diminutive of banc, meaning “bench”) is an upholstered bench, often built in along a wall, or a sofa with one arm. (The term also refers to a raised surface along a parapet or a trench used in warfare to accommodate soldiers to fire guns over the barrier; in Southern US dialect, it is also a synonym for sidewalk.)