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Saturday, May 30, 2020

Chesterfield: not quite dead

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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  1. I was born and grew up in Jamaica prior to Independence as we always called it a sofa.

  2. Oh, gosh. My maternal grandparents had a chesterfield, which I perched upon as I was cutting out the Betsy McAll paper doll in 1967. My paternal grandfather had a couch, where he taught me to read in that same era. Thanks for the memories, Wordlady!

  3. I don't have one right now but I still use the word chesterfield. I use couch for daybeds and sofa for antiques but I like the word chesterfield. As far as I know The Chesterfield Shop (or Store) still exists in Toronto.

  4. Oh my goodness, you brought back a memory. My parents always called our couch the "chesterfield" and I never thought anything of it and did the same. But now that you mention it, that would explain some of the raised eyebrows I get when I use the word. I grew up North of Toronto in the 70s; my parents were from Montreal.

  5. https://www.thechesterfieldshop.com/

  6. Early on, as I grew up, it was a chesterfield. But we have come to couch it in different terms, sofa as I remember.

  7. An acquaintance had two cats whom he named Chester and Field, so chesterfield was sufficiently au courant in the eighties to prompt a little humour.

  8. I'm old enough that when I grew up, we called it a chesterfield. I even put the word into a humorous song I wrote in the early 1980s when enough people still knew what the word meant. The song has a swing-style melody and chords, so the word kind of fits. But I'd probably have to explain it if I ever perform for an audience under age 60. :-) (Lyrics here, if you're curious. http://marielynnhammond.com/pages/lyrics/impromptu-lyrics/i%e2%80%99m-the-aunt/)

  9. I'm pretty sure I bumped into the word in reading something from the PG Wodehouse collection, and I had to look it up to be sure what I was reading. (I'm 70, lifelong Texan.) On the other hand, I have fairly solid memories of sometimes calling that piece of furniture a divan, although for the life of me I don't know why.

  10. PG Wodehouse would certainly have been referring to the tufted leather version illustrated in the photo.
    Divan is definitely another possibility for this piece of furniture.

  11. I'm 65, born and raised in Toronto and we always called it a chesterfield. We even had a "fold out chesterfield" that converted to a bed. As a boy I always thought the word "sofa" was some strange eastern European thing because that was the word used by the polish immigrant family two doors down. I still use "chesterfield" but often translate it to "couch" like one might when quoting the temperature in Celsius to an American. I've never used the word "sofa". I find it displeasing. BTW there's a small chain of furniture stores in Toronto called the Chesterfield Gallery but even they advertise "Sofas".

  12. I grew up in the 60s and my parents were from Saskatchewan and Southern Ontario. We had a red chesterfield and that's the only term we used for it. Later when we got a new one in the late 70s I believe we may have started calling it a couch. That's the only term I use now. I have never used the word sofa.

  13. I understand you were interested in hearing from Canadians, but as I have lived most of my adult life in England, I feel compelled to add my two pence. "Settee" is the most common term for this piece of furniture in my experience, and probably the only one I heard until the 90s, although I admit I don't hear it quite as often as I used to. I have not looked at any data nor polled my friends, but I am sure I have heard "couch" as often as "sofa". I grew up in California and was aware of the term "chesterfield," but I probably just read it in books. My parents were both from Chicago, but there might have been a class difference in terms; my middle class father called our couch the "sofa", and for my working class mother it was the couch.

  14. I grew up in rural southwestern Ontario sitting on chesterfields. But I have to admit that I use the word couch now.


About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.