Is It a Couch or a Sofa: How 4 Furniture Pieces Got Their Names
Who came up with the name “sofa” for something you sit on? Or the bureau in the bedroom? And why do some pieces of furniture have more than one name? If these questions keep you up at night, I’ve got the answer to your sleeplessness.
Examining the names of furniture is a history lesson, but much more fun than the history you learned in school. From trundle beds to hope chests, each furniture name has something to tell us.
A Couch by Any Other Name
Let’s begin with the couch and all its many alternative names: sofa, divan, or davenport. Couches first gained popularity in the 17th century and the name has its roots in the French coucher, which means to lie down. The earliest couches were used for sleeping or napping as well as sitting.
While this piece is commonly called a couch in the US, in England it is more often referred to as a sofa. This word has its roots in the Arabic word soffa, which is a raised platform padded with pillows and carpet. The name divan comes from the Persian dēvān or dīwān. Whatever you call it, these cushy places to sit were reserved for special guests.
My grandmother used to refer to the “Davenport” and really confuse me as a child. Davenport is probably the least used name for a couch these days. It can sometimes mean a sleeper sofa. It became famous around the 1900s when a Cambridge, Massachusetts company named A.H. Davenport manufactured a boxy sofa. As it became popular, the word davenport became a generic term for couch.
Bureaus, Dressers, Secretaries, Desks, and a Chest of Drawers
If the word bureau or dresser brings to mind a chest of drawers, you are not alone. But that’s not how it began. When you refer to a dresser or chest of drawers as a bureau, Europeans are more likely to think you mean a desk. This is because the word most likely evolved from the French burel, the dark brown cloth that often covered writing desks way back when.
In the 17th century, bureaus were flat writing desks with drawers underneath. Since offices had bureaus, French offices became known as bureaus. Eventually, furniture makers began adding more drawers. The English bureau often had four deep drawers with a flat space for writing and bookshelves on top. These bureaus began to be used more often for storage as well as writing.
A desk used for writing or official business also began to be called a secretary, from the Latin secretarius, a word for a clerk or scribe trusted with confidential information. While bureaus were acquiring more drawers, and becoming more like chests of drawers, secretaries had fewer drawers, but often included a storage area hidden by doors.
When placed in a bedroom, a chest of drawers began to morph into a dresser. It was used for storing clothing, socks, underwear, and other items of clothing needed to get dressed but that were not hung up in a closet.
Trundle Beds Then and Now
If you ever watched Little House on the Prairie, you might have noticed little Carrie sleeping in a trundle bed. Before there were bunkbeds or blow-up mattresses, when you needed an extra bed you used a trundle bed. First mentioned in 16th-century writings, the name trundle implies its usage, as these beds generally had wheels that allowed them to be easily rolled out from under a bigger bed where they were stored.
Several family members might sleep together, with the children in the trundle bed alongside the larger one. Even the rich and powerful did not sleep alone, as they often had servants near them to attend to their every need. These days, you’ll find trundle beds as the part of a daybed that rolls out, changing it from a twin to a double bed.
Wardrobe, Armoire, and Chifforobe? Chifferobe? Chiffarobe?
Whether you call this piece of furniture a wardrobe or chifferobe may depend on your literary tastes: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe vs. To Kill a Mockingbird. And let’s not get into the latter’s many spellings. Sorry, I don’t have a literary reference for armoire, suffice to say it is another word for wardrobe.
The wardrobe began its early life as a room where the robes of powerful officials were guarded along with their gold and other valuables. The word evolved from garderobe or warderobe into the more familiar wardrobe, but you can clearly see its origins. As time went by, wardrobe became a self-contained piece of furniture, and the word came to be used to describe the clothes in contained.
As more houses were built with closets, the need for a separate piece to hang your clothes became obsolete. These pieces were then used as media centers either in the bedroom or family room.
Knowing more about how furniture was used and how particular pieces got their names tells us a little bit more about how people lived in different eras. Just as how we repurpose furniture for the today’s homes will tell future generations more about how we lived our lives.