Let’s take a look.
If you want to bond with interior designers, or you’re just keen to annoy everyone around you, (“did you say let’s sit on the couch? You are so ignorant – it’s a sofa!”) then read on to find out the four main features which separate couches from sofas. Note: couches and sofas have interbred at times so you may need to rely on a couple of features to make an accurate and indisputable identification.
1. Sofas tend to be larger than couches
It’s easy to remember this fact if you know that the word ‘sofa’ is said to have originated from the Arabic word for a bench ‘suffah’. So sofas tend to be longer, allowing up to four people or more to share the same seat. In contrast, couches tend to seat two, three people maximum.
2. Couches are the casual cousins of sofas
Traditionally you’re more likely to find a couch in the room where everyone hangs out binge-watching TV and stuffing chips down their gullets. In contrast, sofas suggest a little more elegance and more focus on design. A sofa is more likely to be found in ‘the good room’ where you host civilised guests to discuss your favourite topics like ‘metaphysical poetry’ and ‘21st century paradigm shifts’. OK so we are exaggerating a little but you get the idea. Sofas are considered a little more sophisticated and formal, while couches are relaxed melting pots of casualness.
3. Couches have sloping backs
In keeping with their greater focus on comfort, couches generally have a sloping back rest, meaning you can recline on them and get settled in for days of slothfulness. Sofas in contrast tend to have upright backs, they’re often used in places where you want to be comfortable but don’t want to fall asleep like hotel lobbies and dentist waiting rooms.
4. Sofas have arms
Sofas almost always have two armrests while couches may have just one, or even none. We’re not clear on why this is.
As we mentioned at the start, the couch and sofa can tell us some remarkable things about the cultures which created them. Before the 1680s, the concept of the sofa simply did not exist in European cultures. Europe at that time didn’t prioritise comfort the way we do today. Furniture was very simple and indeed, early sofas rather resembled church pews, a design not known for its comfort.
When sofas became more popular they were viewed as a morally corrupting force by some members of society. No longer was a person (and here we mostly mean a woman) forced to sit primly and properly on a hard wooden bench. Suddenly she could adopt new poses, recline a little, resting her weight on upholstered arm rests – so seductive for the time! Early sofas were considered scandalous, so much so that they were often concealed before guests arrived. Sofa-owning households didn’t want to be seen as sinful by possessing an item of furniture that was comfortable to sit on. If it was comfortable to sit down, the thinking went, why you might just do more sitting; and laziness was considered much more of a sin back then compared to how we view it today.
The couch as we know it now really can be considered the younger relative of the sofa, reflecting the increased casualness of our society. It’s even more sinful and decadent and you rarely want to get up once you sit down…
Perhaps the 18th century English were onto something!