Sofa, couch, davenport: The Answer Man explains

News-DemocratApril 23, 2013 

Q. Why do we have two very different names for a couch/sofa? When you look on craigslist, they are used interchangeably. Is there a difference?

-- S.J.D., of Belleville

A. I'm surprised you didn't mention "davenport" as well.

That's what I remember my mom calling the large, uh, seating apparatus covered by a blinding floral print that graced our living room in my earliest years. Or, how about divan, settee and Chesterfield? With so many choices to explain, maybe you'd better pull up a straight chair so you don't nod off.

If you had lived in 19th century France, you would have had no problem distinguishing a sofa from a couch. Imprisoned in your tight-fitting corset, gigantic hoop skirt and showy bustle, simply finding a comfortable place to sit would have been a challenge.

So, French furniture makers obliged by offering the "couche." Often called the "fainting couch," it generally was armless (or had one arm at most) with a tapered back and provided an informal, but easily accessible seat, particularly for women feeling overcome by their restrictive outfits.

On the other hand, sofa comes from the Arabic word "suffah." Originally, it described a bench that had been covered with blankets and cushions and generally had two arms.

From those descriptions, you may start to see how distinct they are, according to homedit.com. Sofas generally seat four, may include a pull-out bed and customarily are reserved for formal use and settings such as a living room or business meeting. The smaller couches seat two or three and are popular for informal get-togethers, making them perfect for a rec or family room.

But as you note, people over the years apparently became a little linguistically sloppy and started calling sofas "couches" and vice versa. At the same time, the other terms I mentioned earlier seem to have fallen out of favor. See if any of these ring a bell (it may depend on where you have lived):

If you were born before World War II, you likely remember "davenport," especially if you lived in the Midwest or New York. The large sofas, which often included a hideaway bed, were manufactured by the A.H. Davenport Co., of Cambridge, Mass., and proved so popular that their name became a genericized trademark like Kleenex and Xerox.

The company is now defunct but the name lives on in modern culture. In his song "Disorder in the House," Warren Zevon sang, "I'm sprawled across the davenport of despair." And arcade owner Noah Vanderhoff described "Wayne's World" as "two chimps on a davenport in a basement."

Similarly, the Kroehler Manufacturing Co. in Naperville had a trademark on Davenette, "an upholstered Davenport bed," from 1951 to 1992. In the Northwest, they often called them davenos (or daveneaux). Meanwhile, fashioned much like a couch, "divan" comes from a Persian word for customhouse and the furniture that decorated it.

Of course, you can't forget "settee," a small to medium-size sofa whose name comes from the Old English "setl" for a long bench with high backs and arms.

The only mystery seems to be "Chesterfield," a popular upholstered sofa in England since Victorian times. Some think it was named for the Earl of Chesterfield while others argue it honors the town in the county of Derbyshire. Regardless, it, too, has made its way across the pond. In an episode of "Family Guy," when Rita tells Brian to leave her key on the davenport and he doesn't understand, she finally says in exasperation, "The Chesterfield!"

Q. A friend of one of my children used to date Courtney Gousman, who was a reporter on KSDK-TV Channel 5 for a while. Whatever became of her?

-- P.J., of Fairview Heights

A. After stops in Jefferson City, Mo., Evansville, Ind. and St. Louis, the Hampton University grad last June returned to her native Chicago, where you'll find her reporting for WBBM-TV. Catch up with her latest stories at chicago.cbslocal.com.

Today's trivia

In 1859, who won what is often regarded as the first college baseball game ever played?

Answer to Tuesday's trivia: In the fall of 1953, Hugh Hefner put together his first issue of Playboy magazine at his kitchen table in his Chicago apartment. He had begged and borrowed $8,000 from friends and family to launch his dream of a sophisticated men's magazine. Yet he was so unsure of whether it would sell that he didn't even put a date on the cover. He probably planned on holding on to his most recent day job: circulation manager of Children's Activities magazine. Instead, that first issue, with its calendar photo of Marilyn Monroe, sold 50,000 copies, launching his empire, according to his biography at hmhfoundation.org.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 239-2465.

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