30th September 2022

Sofa, Couch, or Settee – What’s the Difference?

By Darlings Of Chelsea

Whether big or small, leather or fabric, most people own a sofa in some shape or form. But not everyone calls it a sofa. It’s quite normal for a sofa to be referred to as a couch or a settee without raising any eyebrows or causing any confusion. While all three terms are now used to describe the same thing, they all have quite different origins and meanings!

Whether you call it a sofa, a couch, or a settee, most of the population is familiar with all three terms. But are they really all the same things? Is one more correct than the other? And which one is the most/least sophisticated saying? If you’ve always wondered, here’s a look back into the origins and etymology of each word, to help explain what the differences are between a sofa, a couch, and a settee.

What is a Sofa?

Let’s start with the word ‘sofa’. Derived from the Arabic word ‘soffah’, over two thousand years ago it was classed as a ‘part of the floor raised a foot or two, covered with rich carpets and cushions, and used for sitting upon’. Fast forward several hundred years and the word ‘sofa’ first appeared in the English language in the writing of cleric Samuel Purchas, in his 1625 work ‘Purchas this Pilgrimage’, in which he detailed his travels in Arabia, including ‘a sofa with sumptuous carpets of gold.’ His use of the word ‘sofa’ to describe such an elaborate piece of furniture may explain why the word to this day still carries connotations of luxury.

Following Purchas’ work, the word ‘sofa’ slowly started to make its presence known in the Western world in the centuries that follow – with an entry in 1717 by philosopher George Berkeley stating in his description of an Italian interior ‘the bridegroom sits on a very low sort of seat, not unlike an oriental sofa.’

The word was used and spelt in many ways over the next few centuries and eventually adopted into French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the word ‘sofa’ became commonplace and is still one of the most popular ways to describe a comfy chair today. It is defined in the Oxford dictionary as ‘a long, upholstered seat with a back and arms, for two or more people.’ If it seats less than two people, it could be either an armchair or a small loveseat.

What Types of Sofas are There?

There is a wide range of sofa types available these days, from small loveseat sofas that offers a cosy space for two, to large corner sofas and even u-shaped sofas. There are different styles, from traditional sofas to contemporary sofas, and different materials, ranging from leather to velvet and cotton to tweed.

What is a Couch?

Whereas the word ‘sofa’ has origins in Arabia, the couch has a totally different history, originating in Middle English from the Old French noun ‘coucher’, which is a verb meaning ‘to lie down.’ With that in mind, it does conjure up a slightly different image than a sofa, instead bringing to mind something that is more suitable for lying on, such as a chaise longue.

In his work in 1385, Chaucer referred to a couch as a place to sleep but by 1500, references to couches focus more on it being a seat, and over the last few centuries, the word ‘sofa’ and ‘couch’ have become almost synonymous.

The variation tends to be on where they are used, with couches being used predominantly in North America, Australia, and South Africa, while the sofa is more popular in the UK and India. However, whether you use a sofa or couch, you will be understood!

What is a Settee?

Settee origins are once again different to that of a sofa or couch, and yet today they can all be used to refer to the same thing. The word itself is believed to have evolved from the old English word ‘setl’ – which in Medieval times defined as a long wooden bench, featuring a beautiful ornate carved back. Throughout Victorian times, a settee continued to mean a bench but was also used to describe an upholstered sofa

Is a Settee Posher Than a Sofa?

In today’s climate, there isn’t a class divide over who uses which word. But back in the 1950s, if you sat on a sofa, you were seen as more upper middle class, whereas the middle class and below would relax on a couch or settee. Thankfully, that has all changed and the three terms are now interchangeable, but it is the case that some countries use one term over the others, with sofa being the most popular in the UK.

Sofa, Couch, Settee or Something Else…

As if it’s not confusing enough to have three ways to describe the same thing, there are a few additional phrases which can also be used to describe a sofa! To ensure you’re familiar with them, here they are:


Not often used in the UK, Davenport was more commonly used in the US, after Massachusetts company A.H. Davenport Co released their large, upholstered sofa. However, in the UK a Davenport tends to refer to a desk bureau so depending on who is talking, it could mean either!


A Chesterfield sofa is a style of sofa, defined by its large, rolled arms which tend to be the same height as the back. Traditionally, they are upholstered in leather and feature dark button detailing but are now widely available in a range of fabrics.

Chesterfields themselves also have a fascinating history. Dating back to the 1700s, it is believed that Lord Phillip Stanhope, the fourth Earl of Chesterfield, commissioned a piece of furniture that needed to have a low seat and a high back, specifically for a gentleman to sit comfortably without creasing their suits. The iconic Chesterfield design was produced and continues to be one of the most popular designs today, with a range of options available, from armchairs to corner sofas and sofa beds.

So, there you have it. There is no right or wrong way to talk about this piece of furniture – whether you choose to call it a sofa, couch or settee, the choice is yours!