The Actual Difference Between a Couch and Sofa
Though we wouldn’t recommend correcting people on their choice of term.
In America, most people consider the words “couch” and “sofa” interchangeable. After all, they’re both long, upholstered pieces of furniture intended for sitting and lounging. Aren’t they?
Well, historically speaking, couch and sofa are two different things. The term "couch" is believed to have come from the French word "couche," which is used to describe "a piece of furniture with no arms used for lying." On the other hand, Merriam-Webster defines a “sofa” as "a long, upholstered seat usually with arms and a back, and often convertible into a bed."
In the old days, it seems that the difference between a couch and a sofa had to do with arms—or lack thereof. Which means, technically speaking, “sofa” is the correct term.
Luckily, the only people who really seem to care are designers and other industry professionals, where “sofa” is standard. Colloquially, you’re in the clear to use whichever term suits you best.
"They're readily interchangeable, but I call everything a sofa because I've been in the industry for so long," Skip Rumley, the vice president of design and creative direction at Heritage Home Group, told Elle Decor. "But if I saw a big, fluffy, overstuffed piece of furniture that could recline and was in, say, a man cave, that's a couch."
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Rumley’s right. Couch, in general, is considered a more casual term—one you’d use when yelling at an adolescent to get up off of one. Sofa, on the other hand, strikes a more refined tone. You can picture a dignified lady inviting you to join her for tea on one.
"There's an ounce of pretense when people correct you and say, it's not a couch, it's a sofa," Rumley concluded. "I think that's silly. Call it what you want, but at the end of the day, a sofa may just be a more formal idea of a couch."