The Actual Difference Between a Couch and Sofa

Though we wouldn’t recommend correcting people on their choice of term.

Dog on Sofa
Photo: iannelson / Getty Images

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?

Historically speaking, a couch and a sofa are two different things. The term "couch," believed to be derived from the French word "couche," 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, the difference between a couch and a sofa seemed to be arms—or lack thereof, meaning "sofa" is technically 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."

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