In Britain, the most common term used for what Americans call a “couch” is “sofa”. However, there are some slight differences between British and American usages of these words that are good to be aware of.
The British “Sofa”
In British English, a sofa refers to a long, upholstered seat with armrests and a back, designed for multiple people to sit on. It may also be called a “settee”. Some key characteristics of the British “sofa” include:
- Usually has upholstered fabric, leather, or other material on all surfaces including the arms, back, and seat.
- Designed for multiple people to sit on, unlike a chair.
- Often found in living rooms or lounge areas.
- May come in a variety of styles – from sleek modern sofas to ornate antique-style sofas.
- Differs from a couch in American English, which has open sides without armrests.
The word “sofa” originated from Arabic in the 16th century and has been commonly used in British English since the 1800s to refer to any long, padded seat.
The American “Couch”
In American English, the word for a long padded seat is usually “couch”. There are some key attributes of an American “couch”:
- Typically has armrests on either side.
- Does not have back support – the back and armrests are usually one continuous element.
- Is designed for multiple people to sit on.
- Usually found in living rooms.
- May be upholstered in fabric or leather.
- Differs from a British sofa which has a backrest separate from the arms.
The word “couch” has French and Greek origins from the 1500s, referring to a sofa or daybed. Its usage in American English to refer specifically to a settee with open sides and no backrest emerged in the 1800s.
Other British Terms
In addition to “sofa”, there are some other British terms for a long, padded seat that Americans would call a couch:
- Settee – A long padded seat for two or more people. Typically has a backrest and arms.
- Chesterfield – A luxury, tufted leather sofa with buttons and rolled arms.
- Davenport – A style of couch or settee from the 1800s. Usually leather or mahogany.
- Settle – A wooden bench with padded back and arms, often found in pubs.
Other American Terms
Some other terms Americans might use instead of “couch” include:
- Sofa – Seen as more formal than “couch”, but refers to the same piece of furniture.
- Settee – A more old-fashioned word for a couch or small sofa.
- Loveseat – A small couch designed for two people.
- Futon – A couch that folds out into a bed.
- Sectionals – Large modular sofas that can be arranged in different shapes.
Summary of Key Differences
While British English speakers use “sofa” and Americans opt for “couch”, there are some subtle distinctions between the two terms:
|Has a backrest separate from the arms
|Backrest and arms are one continuous piece
|Usually has armrests on both sides
|Can have open sides without armrests
|Originated from Arabic in the 1500s
|Comes from Greek and French terms from the 1500s onward
|Upholstered in fabric, leather, etc.
|Can be made of various materials
However, both terms refer broadly to a long padded seat for multiple people. The context and speaker’s origin determines whether “sofa” or “couch” is used.
Other Furniture Name Differences
Along with the sofa/couch distinction, there are some other furniture terms that differ between British and American English:
|Chest of drawers
The origins of these differences seem to be largely historical, with terms evolving separately in American and British English over centuries of use. Contemporary globalization has meant many of these distinctions are fading, but they can still lead to confusion in some contexts.
In summary, the British tend to say “sofa” while Americans opt for “couch”, but both refer to the same essential item – a long, padded seat for multiple people. While the words have different origins and nuances, sofa and couch can generally be used interchangeably across dialects. However, it’s helpful to be aware of the key differences in case the context requires a more British or American term.