The German Grandparents´ Sofa

The German sofa, the Grandma and Grandpa´s favorite seat cushion, with it´s cosy and soft upholestery is legendary and has become part and parcel of the German culture. It has its fixed place in the German living room to the degree you think it must have been a German invention since German linguistically seems to be very generous with a series of words referring to nearly the same object with upholestery: Sofa, Couch, Kanapee, Diwan, Ottoman

However, the moment you do some research on the etymology of these words you are shocked to find out that none of them are German; all of them are borrowings from a variety of languages:

Sofa is from Arabic Suffa صفة. Of course this doesn´t mean that the Arabs were the inventors of the sofa since Arabs as Bedouins lived in tents. Thy didn´t even have words for houses, windows and doors (now loanwords) let alone modern furniture. The Arabic word referred to a raised section of a floor covered with probably blankets or other soft materials.

Couch is from old French couche meaning a bed or a lair from French coucher to lie down

Diwan, English divan comes from Persian devan which referred to a bundle of written sheets, small book or a collection of poems (see Goethe´s West-Östlicher Diwan). The sense developed from book of accounts to office of accounts,  custom house (see English douane), council chamber until it lead to a cushioned seat.

Kanapee is from Greek konopeion, Latin conopeum, Old French canope, Modern French canapé couch with mosquito curtains

Ottoman is ultimately from the Arabic male proper name Uthman عثمان which was borrowed via Turkish during the Ottoman Empire. The sense was given to a type of couch because one reclined on it as with Eastern customs.

Now you are puzzled and start to inquire about the past German sitting habits and wonder whether the Germans used to sit on hard materials. However, when you come to the German word for sitting room which is Wohnzimmer (literally living room) you find out that the Wohnzimmer puts emphasis on living in general rather than on sitting. What has happened? Why do the Germans now sit so much whether at school, at work or at home? What about health risks? Maybe it is because of the German (Gemütlickeit) convenient way of sitting on a sofa.


8 Spetember 2016