Canapés, sofas and curtains

Sofa / couch / settee / davenport / settle / chesterfield

The other day I discovered that one French word for sofa is canapé (/kanape/), and that canapé-lit or canapé transformable/convertible is a sofa bed. The word sofa is also used in French, and canapé can also mean an open sandwich.

According to the OED, in English canapé (/ˈkænəpɪ/) can mean both “A piece of bread or toast, etc., on which small savouries are served.” and “A sofa”. I’ve never come across it used to mean sofa in English, and had always assumed that canapés were small items of food similar to tapas. I think such things are also known as appetisers or hors d’oeuvres.

Canapé comes from the Medieval Latin canāpēum, from canōpēum (mosquito curtains; pavilion, tent, bed), from the Latin cōnōpēum (seat with a baldaquin*), from the Ancient Greek κωνωπεῖον (kōnōpeion – an Egyptian bed or couch with mosquito curtains), from κάνωψ (kánōs – gnat, mosquito). In English the word came to mean mainly curtain or canopy, which comes from the same root, while in French and other Romance languages its primary meaning became sofa or couch.

Sofa /ˈsəʊfə/ probably arrived via the Turkish sofa from the Arabic صفة (súffa – a long seat made of stone or brick).

Settee /sɛˈtiː/ is probably a variant of settle /ˈsɛt(ə)l/, “a long bench, often with a high back and arms, with storage space underneath for linen.” [source]. Settle comes from the Old English setl, from the Germanic *setlo-, from the pre-Germanic *sedlo-, from the Proto-Indo-European *sed-lo-, from *sed- (to sit).

Couch /kaʊtʃ/ comes from the French couche, from the Old French culche, which is cognate with coucher (to sleep), which comes from the Latin collocāre (to lay in its place, lay aright, lodge) from com- (together) and locāre (to place).

*Baldaquin /ˈbældəkɪn/ = “A structure in the form of a canopy, either supported on columns, suspended from the roof, or projecting from the wall, placed above an altar, throne, or door-way”.

What do you call your a long padded seat designed for two or more people? If it can be converted into a bed, what do you call it?

For my parents such a piece of furniture is a settee, and I used to use this name as well. Now I usually call it a sofa. We also have a piece of furniture that came from my grandparents and that we call a settle – a long wooden seat with a high, straight wooden back, wooden arms and a narrow seat with a cushion on top. The seat also lifts up and we store board games inside.

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This entry was posted in English, Etymology, French, Language, Words and phrases.

16 Responses to Canapés, sofas and curtains

  1. Paul says:

    What about: ‘chaise longue’ (or even ‘chaise lounge‘); ‘davenport’; ‘divan’; ‘ottoman’? These are all words I know or at least have heard used, but I don’t have a clue what any of them look like.

  2. D.Jay says:

    In Canada we sometimes call them “chesterfields”. It was much more common in my childhood – using that word immediately evokes memories of my parents’ old grey chesterfield. Nowadays it is mostly couch.

  3. Yenlit says:

    I’ve always said settee and sofa equally and in the mid 90s when they were all the rage I stupidly bought a futon the Japanese sofa beds, probably the most uncomfortable bed to sleep on in the world!

  4. Jayarava says:

    If you are English Kate Fox links what you call your “long padded seat designed for two or more people” to class. She reckons you can tell what class someone is by the term they use – though the whole system has been somewhat corrupted by the Amercan ‘sofa’.

  5. Petréa Mitchell says:

    Couch/sofa is the primary term for me (western US), but one for exactly two people is also called a loveseat. One that folds out into a bed can be called a hideabed, or a sofa bed, but also just a couch that folds out into a bed.

    If it has one big mattresslike cushion that is easy to pull out of the frame, and it also transforms into a bed, it can also be a futon.

  6. xarxa says:

    in colloquial egyptian arabic, the word for sofa is ‘kanaba’

  7. Victor says:

    Chesterfield is fairly common where I’m from. Also, we use futon for one that folds into a bed.

  8. Chris Miller says:

    I can’t help wondering if settee might perhaps be derived from Occitan sèti. This is just one of numerous words where Occitan and English have similar forms and meanings but French diverges.

  9. Yenlit says:

    I don’t know about the possiblities of Occitan ‘sèti’ but until I read wikipedia’s entry for settee I didn’t ever know that settee was also a kind of small Mediterranean boat?
    I know that the humorously pronounced in English ‘banquette’ (bonk’et) a long upholstered bench placed against or built into a wall is from French via Provençal ‘banqueta’ diminutive of ‘banca’ bench of Germanic origin.
    I had a look in which languages canapé exists as in the French sense:
    French canapé
    Breton kanape
    Bulgarian канапе
    Greek καναπες
    Hungarian kanapé
    Ladin canapè
    Ligurian canapé
    Luxembourgian Canapé
    Polish kanape
    Provençal canapè
    Romanian canapea
    Trentino canapè
    Turkish kanepe

  10. Pearl says:

    But how did open sandwich get into the picture? a covering for a bed, by extension bread. funny extension, that.

    thank you for your list of One Word is Never Enough. It was rolled into my photo art here: http://365-pearl.blogspot.com/2011/06/one-is-never-enough.html

  11. renato says:

    Canapé in Brazil is the French food
    sofa is the 1st and 3rd pictures
    canapé-lit is: sofá-cama (a sofa which is also a bed

  12. Simon says:

    Pearl – I wondered where the open sandwich meaning came from as well and couldn’t find any information about that. Maybe at some point in the past people got into the habit of eating open sandwiches while reclining on their canapés/sofas, and the word canapé came to associated with such sandwiches.

  13. Kevin says:

    The Trésor de la langue française informatisé simply says that the culinary meaning came about from a resemblance in shape. In other words, the (edible) canapé is essentially the rectangular slice of toasted or fried bread bearing the delicacy in question — just as tapa (lid) originally referred directly to the cover on your drink, on which barmen wanting to encourage further drinking would place salty snacks.

  14. Macsen says:

    So, ‘eistedd’ Welsh for ‘to sit’, shares the same Indo-European root as ‘setee’?

  15. Simon says:

    Eistedd is derived from sedd (seat), which is cognate with the Latin sedere (to sit), which comes from the PIE base *sed- (to sit), the same root as settle.

  16. Macsen says:

    Thanks Simon – I’m in awe of your wisdom! Diolch am fynd i’r drafferth. Hiroes i’r blog!