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Settee or sofa?

October 8, 2020

The other day I incautiously made a reference to the settee and my son Fred (16) looked at me in bewilderment. 

FRED: The what? 

BRANDON: The settee – you know, this. The sofa.

FRED: Why don’t you say ‘sofa’ then? 

BRANDON: Settee is another word for it. 

FRED: No it isn’t. 

When I was young my parents always called it the settee and the word sofa sounded distinctly posh, used by friends who were higher up in the middle class than we were. I didn’t know it then, but the settee-/sofa distinction was one of Nancy Mitford’s tests for whether the speaker was U or non-U (upper-class or non-upper-class). Settee marked you out as non-U. 

Some of Mitford’s U-forms now sound distinctly outdated, such as looking-glass rather than the non-U mirror. And the non-U toilet is far more widely used than the U lavatory. In this case, however, the U-word has won out and saying settee makes one sound old-fashioned and provincial. I don’t think I’ll use it again. 

I’m reminded of an old ‘Doctor, Doctor’ joke, which would be a nice way to conclude. Ready? 

PATIENT: Doctor, Doctor, I’ve swallowed a settee!

DOCTOR: And how are you feeling? 

PATIENT: All right so-fa. 

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6 Comments
  1. Simon Carter permalink

    Couch seems to have gained ground in recent years.
    We always had a settee in the living room as well, there might have been something in the front room as well but no one ever went in there.

    • ‘Couch’ is most definitely non-U. And I know what you mean about the front room that nobody ever entered!

  2. Mark Brafield permalink

    I always had (and still have) problems with the last course of a three course meal. ‘Dessert’ sounds pretentious. ‘Pudding’ sounds dumpy. I once knew someone who called it ‘the sweet course’ which I always thought sounded unbearably prissy (which he was). If I am in a restaurant I normally fudge the issue by just saying ‘shall we see the menu again’ and, as so often in these situations, leave feeling that somehow I should have done better.

  3. Simon Carter permalink

    Dessert comes from the French desservir meaning “to clear the table. The U-word is Pudding vs Sweet for non-U.
    It all gets rather confusing if it’s steak & kidney pudding for the main course and apple pie for pudding.

  4. Hi Simon – didn’t know the etymology of dessert – merci beaucoup.

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