“Divan” is one of the most complicated words I know. The American Heritage Dictionary gives the following definitions:
1. A long backless sofa, especially one set with pillows against a wall.
2. a. A counting room, tribunal, or public audience room in Muslim countries. b. The seat used by an administrator when holding audience. c. A government bureau or council chamber.
3. A coffeehouse or smoking room.
4. A book of poems, especially one written in Arabic or Persian by a single author.
The OED adds the meaning ‘a room having one side entirely open towards a court, garden, river, or other prospect’ and expands on the fourth sense as follows: “A Persian name for a collection of poems (Persian, Arabic, Hindustani, Turkish); spec. a series of poems by one author, the rimes of which usually run through the whole alphabet. [From the original sense ‘collection of written sheets’, perh. influenced by later uses of the word.]” And speaking of “original sense,” check out the etymology:
A word originally Persian, dēvān, now dīwān, in Arabic pronounced dīwān, diwān; in Turkish divān, whence in many European langs., It. divano, Sp., Pg., F. divan. Originally, in early use, a brochure, or fascicle of written leaves or sheets, hence a collection of poems, also a muster-roll or register (of soldiers, persons, accounts, taxes, etc.); a military pay-book, an account-book; an office of accounts, a custom-house; a tribunal of revenue or of justice; a court; a council of state, senate; a council-chamber, a (cushioned) bench. The East Indian form and use of the word is given under DEWAN. Another European form, older than divan, and app. directly from Arabic, is It. dovana, doana, now dogana, F. douane (in 15th c. douwaine), custom-house: see DOUANE.
For a more discursive collection of definitions, with 19th-century stabs at etymology, see the Hobson-Jobson entry. The mix of senses is so confusing that when I asked the proprietors of an excellent Lebanese restaurant in Astoria called Al Dewan (long defunct, I’m afraid) why it was so named, they muttered and fumfered and couldn’t come up with anything convincing. (To my mind, it was clearly named with the ‘poetry collection’ sense in view, since the window displayed a plaster model of an open book with the name inscribed calligraphically, but when I drew their attention to this, they shrugged—I’m guessing whoever named the place and ordered the plaster book was no longer around, and nobody else knew.)
And where does the Persian word come from, you ask? The AHD says:
Persian dīwān, place of assembly, roster, probably from Old Iranian *dipivahanam, document house : Old Persian dip-, writing, document (from Akkadian tuppu, tablet, letter, from Sumerian dub) + Old Persian vahanam, house; see wes-1 in Indo-European roots.
I hope that’s correct, because there aren’t many words in English that go back to Sumerian (tunic and chiton are two more; according to AHD they go back via Akkadian kitû, kita’um, ‘flax, linen’ to Sumerian gada, gida).
The reason I’m telling you all this is to give you the background for appreciating the amusing error made in this article (Google cache; the original story has gone 404) by Ana Keshelashvili:
Revaz Baramidze looked in amazement at the crowd of people gathered in Parnassus, Tbilisi’s newest bookstore. The store’s two rooms were so tightly packed that it was difficult to move around, and more people stood outside waiting to get in.
“What do I see, so many young people and everybody came to buy a book. I can’t predict, but it seems to me that we are turning back to reading literature,” said Baramidze, professor of literature at Tbilisi State University.
That cold but sunny winter afternoon, Vakhushti Kotetishvili was seated at a small desk in the downstairs room, signing copies of his newly published collection “East-West Sofa.”…
Now, you also have to know that a famous collection of Goethe’s was called West-östlicher Divan, translated as West-Eastern Divan. I strongly suspect that Mr. Kotetishvili (described here as “an incredibly dignified translator of persian poetry”) gave his book the same title in Georgian. But Ms. Keshelashvili looked up Georgian დივანი (divani) in her Georgian-English dictionary, found “sofa,” and the rest was history.
I’d feel worse about making public fun of Ms. Keshelashvili if she hadn’t publicly identified me as David Foster Wallace in her master’s thesis, “Patterns of Self-Expression and Impression Management in Blogs” (pdf; Google cache here). Check out #104 in APPENDIX A: LIST OF BLOGS ANALYZED.