The cockles of my little Canadian heart were warmed this week when I read that the Crime Writers of Canada 2020 Arthur Ellis Prize has been awarded to 58-year-old Albertan author Wayne Arthurson's The Red Chesterfield, which features a severed foot found in an abandoned sofa. Coincidentally, I had just seen another mention of "chesterfield" in a novel by 62-year-old Nova Scotian Anne Emery the night before. (This is called the first law of lexicography: just when you think a word might not exist, you read it in the paper or hear it on TV.)
For decades in the 20th century, "chesterfield" was a shibboleth of Canadian English. Canadians, and only Canadians, called a multi-seated upholstered piece of furniture a chesterfield rather than a couch or a sofa.
In other varieties of English, a chesterfield is a specific kind of sofa, the kind you might find in smoky gentlemen's clubs, upholstered in tufted leather, with the back and the arms of the same height.
But starting in the early years of the 20th century, Canadians started to apply the word generically to any kind of sofa. There were scatterings of this usage in the US but they faded away. In Canada, "chesterfield" had its heyday through the 1970s, but started to wane, until by the 1990s, fewer than 10% of Torontonians in their twenties were saying "chesterfield", having abandoned it in favour of "couch".
I grew up calling this piece of furniture a chesterfield, but shifted to "sofa", sometime in the eighties, which seems to have been "peak sofa" time in North America. I do use "couch" occasionally. But "sofa", too, has lost the battle to "couch" with most North Americans, although it is still the preferred term for the British.
But "chesterfield" is not yet dead, especially outside Toronto, witness the two authors I have mentioned, who though not spring chickens, are not really old either (I may be a bit biased in this assessment). Where they live is also significant. Searches in Canadian newspapers for the last three years turned up a few dozen chesterfields (fortunately not including severed feet) in the Prairies, BC, and Atlantic Canada. They were, however, vastly outnumbered by couches (over 20,000 hits) and, struggling along, sofas (5,800 hits).
If you're a Canadian, what do you call this item of furniture? Have you ever called it a "chesterfield"? And if so, how old are you and what part of the country are you from? I would love to keep "chesterfield" alive, but I fear it is doomed. The language evolves organically and there is little we can do to change it.
A bit of etymology for these three words:
Sofa ultimately goes back to Arabic ṣoffah, a slightly raised platform covered with carpet and cushions, on which people could sit or recline. It was applied to what we know as a sofa in the 1700s.
Chesterfields are named for one of the 19th-century Earls of Chesterfield.
Couch comes from French coucher, a typical squishing-down of Latin collocāre to lay in its place, from com- together + locāre to place.
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