In these days of uncertainty one thing is indubitable: we will all become much better acquainted with our sofa, our couch and our settee.
To accompany us all, a Radio smow playlist dedicated to the sofa, couch, settee and an invitation to reflect on the symbolic, figurative and cultural role of the sofa, couch, settee…
…a triumvirate of terms which raises the very obvious question as to the difference(s)
The short answer is that today there is essentially none, the term you use being a question of local custom and family tradition.
The long answer is the (hi)story of the contemporary sofa/couch/settee, and the wider development of the relationship between furniture and society. And can, as with so much in life, be most conveniently approached etymologically.
The origins of the term couch can be found in the French verb coucher, to lay down, to bed down, to sleep; a “couching” is the ancient term for a wild boar’s resting place, the reclining heraldic lion is “couchant”, as is “sunset” in French, while in his 1730 Dictionarium Britannicum Nathan Bailey defines a couch as “a sort of seat or moveable Bed to lie down on.” And which all awakes thoughts of ancient Roman, Egyptian, Etruscan recliners, and for all the Greek klinē on which, for example, the protagonists of Plato’s Symposium repose while debating, drinking and shamelessly flirting. From such formalised lounging, reclining and general lolling developed genres such as the day bed, the chaise longue, or the Péché-Mortel, an 18th century construction whose name – Mortal Sin – implies in just how far society’s relationship to the couch had changed since the days of Ancient Greece: reclining on a pleasingly upholstered object was no longer socially acceptable in 18th century Europe, or at least publicly. A distinction maintained today: on couches in public spaces one sits erect, on your own private couch, less so.
Coucher itself comes from the Latin, collocō: meaning on the one hand to set in order, to put together, to assemble, and thereby implying objects such as the Péché-Mortel or the so-called Duchess, which were comprised of three separate components – two rounded armchair-esque objects and a footstool-esque piece – and which could either be joined together to form a single couch with two end-rests and limited backrest or used individually as two armchairs and a stool/footstool. And thus a furniture object which not only sounds most appropriate for our contemporary age, but can be considered the forbearer of the contemporary modular sofa landscape. And on the other hand collocō means settle. Which is what one does on one’s couch/sofa/settee. And which was the forerunner of the settee.
Originating in the middle ages the settle was a wooden bench with a wooden back; generally a high wooden back designed to keep out draughts as much as to provide somewhere to lean against. An essentially rustic piece of utilitarian furniture, settles were often found in farmhouses, but also in taverns and inns, and would generally be placed between entrance door and fireplace, thus not only providing for protection from draughts, but acting as a form of room divider, creating a defined room-within-a-room around the fireplace. The name settle implying that that is what one did: settled down in front of the fire.
In the course of the 17th century wealthier sections of society began creating settles with upholstered seats and backs, backs which became ever lower as houses became ever less draughty, ever more representational than functional, and thus was born the settee, a term, in all probability, abstracted from settle, although we also like our own, unfounded, thoroughly fantastical, definition based on an imagined 17th century invitation to “set ye”.
And thus in contrast to the couch, the settee was always intended as an object for sitting.
As indeed was the sofa.
If in a completely different context. If still in a room-within-a-room stylee.
In his 1708 Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum John Kersey defines sofa as, “a kind of Alcove, much us’d in the Eastern Countries”, Nathan Bailey going further in his 1730 Dictionarium Britannicum with his definition of sofa as, “a sort of alcove much used in Asia; it is an apartment of state, raised from about half a foot, to two foot higher than the floor, and furnished with rich carpets and cushions, where honourable personages are entertained”. While etymologically sofa is widely considered to be derived from the Arabic ṣuffa, a mat/carpet/cushion.
And thus origins far removed from our contemporary understanding of the sofa; but a definition and an etymology implying the Middle Eastern divan. In western society the divan is a further alternative of the sofa, popularly a bench covered in blankets, and thus with parallels to early couches, an object that was à la mode amongst the 19th century Romantics and perhaps most famously being the object on which Sigmund Freud psycholanalysed his patients. In ancient Middle Eastern society however the divan was, as Bailey implies, an office of state, a council chamber, or a hall in a large house in which people congregated and were received. In addition divan is a traditional term for collections of prose and poetry in Middle Eastern cultures.
Thus in the sofa, the couch and the settee we have three very different beasts, but in their (hi)stories a very clear understanding as to why we are so naturally drawn to the sofa/couch/settee: there is something culturally inherent in the lounging/reclining/lolling, in the seclusion and refuge one finds there, and in its role at the centre of daily life and entertainment. As a domestic hub, as a place of discourse, intimacy, community and contemplation the contemporary sofa/couch/settee is simply continuing its historic traditions. The interchangeability of its name confirming the merging of various origins, various historic functionalities, various cultural attributes, into one object which unifies what were once disparate. And which in doing so helps us better understand the continuum on which we are travelling, the intimate link between culture, society and furniture, and that futures are always amalgamations, evolution is inevitable and shouldn’t be feared.
Links and understandings which allow the sofa, couch and settee to act as metaphors and symbols….
As The Streets’ narrator informs us, he should be “standing at the bar, waving a ten pound note around” or “chatting shit as I’m nubbing out another snout” or even “watching the fruit machines for which one will pay out”.
But he’s not.
He’s “here on the sofa at my girl’s house”. With a herbal cigarette, a TV meal, some soap operas.
And “wouldn’t have it any other way”
Little signifies the approaching passing of the carefree days of youth to the responsibilities of full adulthood better than the quiet satisfaction of an evening vegetating on a sofa with a partner. And conversely little better signifies the ending of a relationship more than a desire to get off the sofa, to “get off this beaten track” of domesticity.
But for now all is good, and, arguably, will stay so if he does that other thing that signifies a maturing of character: becomes more honest about his feelings, and tells not just us, but his partner that “every single day, man I’m always thinking loads about her”, tells her that, “She’s the best thing that ever happened to me, and I don’t know what I’d do without her.”
We do. He’ll be standing at the bar waving a ten pound note around, chatting shit nubbing out another snout, watching the fruit machines for which one will pay out, and the “same old drill” with his (equally single) mates…… Which is, yes, another beaten track.
Whereas historically couches were places where one would regularly sleep, today the separation between bed and couch is much more formalised. That said, there are a great many reasons why one may find oneself sleeping on a couch; figuratively, the most popular is that one has been banished from ones own (shared) bed on account of a falling out with one’s partner. Sleeping on the couch representing a disruption in a relationship, emotional distance between a couple, a breakdown in trust.
Brad Paisley’s narrator’s banishing being, as he freely acknowledges, very much of his own makings. His wife “wanted me to go and see her family”, he didn’t want to and so “told her that I had to work”. A simple enough plan; however, “I never dreamed she’d get home so dang early, And she caught me cleanin’ fish, Out on our back porch” A day fishing rather than small talk and cake with the in-laws. A choice many would make. A choice many would lie to achieve. But as the narrator laments, don’t, be honest and upfront about not wanting to.
Lest you find yourself on the sofa.
Or in his case the foldout sofa-bed. “I can’t believe they call this thing a mattress” he complains in his sleepless discomfort, and thereby also underscoring that in any hybrid furniture object compromises inevitably have to be made. As indeed in any relationship…..
Despite the popular interchangeability of the term “couch” and “sofa”, Couchsurfing and Sofasurfing popularly represent two very different phenomena: the former being a cheap and cheerful way to travel the world, meet new people and experience different cultures, the latter being what the homeless do, forced to move from sofa to sofa to sofa for want of a bed of their own.
Same same, but very very different. And thus an excellent reminder of just how close happiness and despair, pleasure and struggle, advancement and stagnation lie, that Fortuna is a cruel mistress and how fragile human existence and human society is. Be nice to each other!
As the protagonist and her lover decide to separate, the whole living room is uproar, “The chair and then the sofa They broke right down and cried.”
Emotional objects chairs and sofas. By which we mean that we have an emotional connection with our chairs and sofas, a sofa is more than just an object on which to sit, it is a part of the family, an object with which one develops a relationship, an understanding, a familiarity, and could a sofa cry when a relationship ends, we believe it would.
Here the sofa’s tears are however short lived.
Waved back in by the curtains, the couple find their way back to each other, make up, reclaim their love, and the joy is clear, “The room was singing love songs, And dancing up and down”
Which again, we believe is exactly what a sofa would do in such a moment. Emotional objects chairs and sofas
Popular culture has produced numerous famous and infamous sofas, couches and settees: be that, for example, those which Amanzéï’s soul is condemned to occupy in Claude Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon’s 18th century novel Le Sopha, conte moral; Andy Warhol’s deep set, tub-esque, red sofa which served as the limited if manifold scenography for his 1964 film Couch; those that populate global breakfast TV studios, providing a platform for early morning chit-chat and gossip or those that form a central framework of many a sitcom.
Then there is the Simpsons’ brown couch: a thoroughly inconspicuous three seater that not only provides the basis for the ever reinvented opening title gag, but is the nucleus of Homer’s universe: “All you need is couch”, he once exclaimed. And regularly demonstrates just such: from his couch have not only a myriad dramas, tragedies, comedies and monologues been brought forth, but innumerable words of wisdom, logic, ethics and truth have arisen. And which brings us back to Plato, who considered Homer the first teacher of all composers of tragedy, opined that we should all follow the guidance and teachings of Homer for Homer was no less than the poet who had educated Greece.
And thus linking the Athenian klinē to the Springfield couch……both being objects we can learn from, and both locations of debating, drinking and shameless flirting. We’ll leave you dear reader to extrapolate such thoughts to your own sofa/couch/settee…….