Blue Sofa

Is the word ‘sofa’ really too ‘upper class’?

23rd April 2024

Sofa, couch, settee… they’re all different words for same piece of furniture. And more likely than not, you’ve used all of them in your time. Strangely enough though, it turns out that there have historically been some curious class connotations between those three terms – connotations that are thankfully not as obvious now, as they’re all interchangeable today. That means that today, everyone can enjoy fitted sofa covers without worrying too much about making a certain kind of statement – but why did it once carry so much linguistic weight?

“U” and “Non-U” – what does it all mean?

The associations with class date all the way back to the 1950s, when English author and journalist Nancy Mitford wrote her essay “The English Aristocracy”, which focused on popular discourse. Essentially, it was a guide on how to speak like a member of the upper classes (U) for people who themselves were not yet upper class (Non U).

The results make for some quite fascinating reading, and goes to show quite how restrictive and determinative these attitudes used to be in the middle of the last century. The noticeably prim “lavatory” or “loo” (U) was somewhat predictably rendered as “toilet” in the Non-U list. See also, the difference between “looking-glass” and “mirror”.

Others, however, are a little less predictable, as some U terms are a little more blunt than their counterparts – for example, the English upper classes were apparently more likely to bluntly say “die”, whereas ‘aspiring upper classes’ were more likely to be a bit more euphemistic with “pass on”.

Interestingly, Mitford had a theory about why this was – she proposed that the so-called “upper class” of the times were more likely to use simpler terms, similar to the working class, as they felt secure in their position, and didn’t feel the need to demonstrate their mastery of language. On the other hand, people who were ‘aspiring middle class’ were more likely to use more flowery language to ingratiate themselves into the right social circles.

And in case you’re wondering, Mitford opined that sofa was the “correct” term for the upper classes, whereas the middle classes were more likely to use the words couch or settee. Thankfully, we’re now quite some way past the age where someone will pass judgement on you for something quite that trivial!

Where does the word sofa come from?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, we get the word sofa from the Arabic word “soffah”, which historically described a part of the floor that was raised a foot or two, covered with rich carpets and cushions. It was, as you might expect, used for sitting upon.

It seems to have been introduced to the English language somewhere in the 17th century, where Samuel Purchas used it in reference to his travels to Arabia, when he called it a sofa (one of the earliest recorded instances of the use of the term). Not long afterwards, the sofa as we know it today finally arrived in England from France. It was an almost instant hit with the wealthy, and by the 19th century, the word ‘sofa’ had become the accepted standard.

And of course, fast-forward to today, and almost every one of us have a sofa / couch / settee in our home – so if you’re thinking about changing up the style of yours, you’re in exactly the right place! Here at Cover My Furniture, we have a comprehensive range of fitted sofa covers available to explore right here on our site. Whatever your interior style, you can trust that we’ll have something to suit you. Why not take a look around our site, and see what you can find?

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