Downies, duvets and slumberdowns

While listening to a programme on Radio Scotland today I heard mention of downies, which seems to be a Scottish word for duvet. These days I usually call these things duvets, but when I was a child I had a slumberdown, which I think might be a trade name. I’ve also heard them called quilts or continental quilts, and think they’re called comforters in the USA.

The definition of duvet in the OED is “A quilt stuffed with eider-down or swan’s-down”, and it comes from the French word duvet (down), from dumet, a diminutive of Old French dum (down).

What do you call these things?

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

11 Responses to Downies, duvets and slumberdowns

  1. Kevin says:

    It’s hard to imagine life without them now, but when I was a child (let’s say half a century ago) what we now call duvets were unknown in Britain and Ireland (or, at least, any part of those countries I’d ever lived and stayed in) — and when they began to be introduced here they were at first known as continental quilts.

    “Continental” because it was on visits to mainland Europe that most Britons had first encountered them; and “quilt” because they resembled the thinner but heavier quilted covers — just as often called eiderdowns — that, in winter especially, had customarily been placed on top of the sheets and blankets of British beds.

    I don’t miss those old-style British covers, though, because not only did you still have all the faff of sheet-and-blankets bed-making but eiderdowns didn’t provide the same degree of snugness as a “body-contact” duvet, and what is more they were often covered with a very shiny kind of material which made them quite likely to slither off the bed if you had any kind of “active” night…

    It’s odd, though, that the French word for the eiderdown filling, should eventually have become the standard British English term, since 1) the French themselves called bed quilts not duvets but couettes, and 2) you were far more likely to come across them in Alpine regions and areas north and east thereof than in most of France. (Bed-making in France 50 years ago was not greatly different from the British variety, except that French beds always had a bolster, and it was placed beneath the bottom sheet.)

    In my limited experience of the USA (staying in private homes, not hotels), the “continental quilt revolution” never happened there (other posters may be able to tell you whether that has since changed). And, as you say, the quilt that went on top of an upper sheet and blanket(s) was (is?) there known as a comforter.

  2. Kevin says:

    PS: Sorry about all the [b]s and [i]s, everyone. Can you let us know whether (and if so, how) we [i]can[/i] italicize etc. in our replies, Simon?

  3. Christopher Miller says:

    For html tags you need to enclose them between a > tag on the right and a < on the left. I have to show them in this order, since if I start with the second and begin with the first, like this: they get interpreted as html and disappear!


    I remember them being called eiderdowns in decades past, here in Canada, and édredons in Canadian French. Wiktionnaire (French) says the word comes from the Danish ederdun.

  4. Catsidhe says:

    In Australia, we call it a doona.

  5. Jerry says:

    In Dutch it is “dekbed”, which means “cover bed”. Weird, that order, now I come to think of it. I’d expect “bed-dek” (“bed cover”), though it is more than a cover, of course. I can’t remember not having these, must have been since the early 1970s. In some hotels they still have sheets and blankets – I cannot get used to those.

  6. Simon says:

    Kevin – I replaced your tags with html ones (< em >< /em > for italics and < strong>< /strong> for bold – without the spaces).

  7. Petréa Mitchell says:

    “Duvet” occurs quite a bit in written form in the US (hotel promotional material, lifestyle news stories, etc.) but the everyday word is indeed “comforter”. Technically they are quilted, but if you call them “quilts” people will look at you funny, because “quilt” in the US means something made from lots of little bits and pieces of fabric.

    “Continental quilt” is an entirely new term to me.

  8. Kevin says:

    Thanks for making those style change for me, Simon. I used to know how to do it properly, but have clearly been spending far too much time editing Wikipedia recently, where it’s [ ], not .

    Getting back to the bed covers, I’ve now looked up the etymology of the French word couette, and of course — knock me down with an eider duck feather — it’s the same as that for quilt. Both words come ultimately from the Latin culcita (mattress), the Old French cuilte (which arrived here as part of William the Conqueror’s baggage, it would seem) having evolved separately on the two sides of the Channel in the many centuries since then…

  9. Darryl Shpak says:

    In my vocabulary (Canadian; specifically Manitoba), a duvet is a specific type of two-piece bed covering that consists of an inner “warm” part stuffed with feathers or whatever, and a fabric covering that can be removed for washing (or simply to change the colour when redecorating).

    In contrast, a comforter is a one-piece bed covering. That might also be called a quilt, though that term also specifically applies to hand-sewn…err…quilts, made out of squares or other pieces of cloth.

  10. Mark P says:

    Petréa Mitchell’s comment mirrors my own experience. I don’t recall seeing “comforter” when I was a boy, but it is certainly common today. I also occasionally see duvet, but it seems somewhat affected.

    Petréa is also right in that in the US a quilt refers to a blanket made from small pieces of material sewn together to make a larger piece, with some kind of batting material sandwiched between two such pieces. The process of enclosing the insulating material between two pieces, and then sewing them within the field to fix the insulation in place is, in fact, called quilting, and some kinds of down jackets are referred to as quilted jackets because they are made this way. Of course, many comforters are also quilted.

  11. Let me elaborate on the comment by Catsidhe, who wrote: “In Australia, we call it a doona.”

    This is perfectly true, assuming the antecent of “we” to be “an unspecified subset of Australians including Catsidhe”. But, as a proud resident of Adelaide, I would hate to let the regional variation in terminology to go unmentioned.

    “Doona” is indeed the usual term near the east coast (which includes the largest cities and most populated areas), but here in South Australia it’s a quilt. (I can’t speak for Perth, etc.)

    Personally, I’ve always thought of “doona” as a very hard, solid-sounding word which sounds more like some sort of kitchen implement. It certainly doesn’t bring to mind the comforts of bed.

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