Americas and the Caribbean
Steve Taylore-Knowles looks at the stories behind the English language.
George Bernard Shaw famously wrote that ‘it is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth, without making some other Englishman despise him.’ My understanding of this is that English is so riddled with regional and social distinctions that even commenting on the weather communicates a huge amount about one’s socio-economic status. Perhaps this is less true these days, but many parents still invest a small fortune in making sure that their children come out of public school with the right vowels.
It’s not just a matter of accent. One’s choice of words can speak volumes. What you call the thing you sit on (the article of furniture, not the part of the body) has always seemed to me to be one area of difference. There are three main options when it comes to the long item of furniture that can seat three people: sofa, settee and couch. And bear in mind that the next Englishman/woman is likely to disagree with everything I say about the status of these words. You have been warned.
Sofa came into English in the 17th century from the Arabic soffah, describing a raised portion of the floor covered in rugs and cushions. By the 18th century, it was being used to describe a long piece of furniture with a back and ends. This is probably the safest word to use and crosses a broad part of the social spectrum. Couch is ultimately derived from Latin com- (together) and locare (to place). The Latin verb collocare became in French culcher and later coucher, and the verb and the noun entered English from there. This word is used for the classic psychiatrist’s couch, with no back and only one end, but is also used for a sofa, perhaps most often amongst the working classes and the upper classes.
Settee is a rather quaint word, but it has solid origins. A settle (Old English, setl) was a long wooden bench and settee is a derivative of this, plus the diminutive -ee (as in a baby’s bootees). Perhaps because the diminutive makes it seem slightly euphemistic, this word is sometimes disparaged as typical of the aspiring middle classes.