“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.

Addendum. See now dahween and divan at Balashon, which (among other things) explains the origin of Chicken Divan (mentioned in the thread below).


  1. John Emerson says

    “East-West Sofa” — well, that’s a dialect form. We would use the correct form where I come from — “East-West Davenport”.
    Just re-notifying people that the 1000-page Hobson-Jobson can be found at bookfinder.com for about $10 including shipping. I’m waiting for mine — I expect a shoddy, slightly musty Indian reprint, but for one cent a page I won’t complain a bit. (Many public-domain books in English relating to India, Asia, Hinduism, or Buddhism have been reprinted cheaply in India.)
    XICc Anglo-English was a real hodge-podge, not only of English and the languages of India, but of Persian, Turkish, Portuguese, Dutch, Chinese, etc. I expect to have a lot of fun.

  2. Not to brag, but I got the Wordsworth reprint for half that.

  3. $.005 / page? Hm.
    But wait! Did your $4.15 include shipping?

  4. Well, if you want to get technical I think it was $4.98 + tax (so probably around $5.40 total) at the Strand. But that was back in 1998.

  5. Curses!
    I’ll get you yet, Dr. Evil! You just wait. Humiliating me in fron of all those people.

  6. Hat you’re wicked. Such deliciously methodical demolitions. I pity the fool who irks.
    I recall a project by Edward Said and Daniel Barenboim called the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which I always thought was a very laid-back name.

  7. In kannada, and I suspect other Indian languages, Dewan is also a sort of Minister. like the Dewan of Mysore. But I guess they have different roots.

  8. I’ve long wondered what the hell a divan is. Now I’m still not sure I know, but at least I have sort of a clue what they mean when book characters are sitting on them. . .

  9. The quality of the print and binding of my Munshiram Manoharlal reprint of Hobson-Jobson (1st ed. 1902; my printed one 2000; ISBN 81-215-0109-1) leaves nothing to be desired. When quoting on e.g. language sites, however, I cut and paste from http://dsal.uchicago.edu/dictionaries/hobsonjobson

  10. That still leaves me needing help with the etymology British English “div” (= “idiot”).

  11. There’s also a type of American casserole that is, for some inexplicable reason, called Chicken Divan:
    I believe it was popular back in the ’50s and ’60s.

  12. Isn’t divan a sofa or couch in Russian? As for chicken divan, despite being born and raised in the US, I had never heard of it until a couple of years ago. And casserole is pot or saucepan (smaller pot)in French. And en español, es caserola.

  13. John: Well, there are those who would call us both fools for spending any money when the whole thing is available online for free. But they don’t understand the joy of flipping actual pages, do they?
    Abdul-Walid: “Irks” is the word. I mean, couldn’t she have outed me as, say, Adam Gopnik? Or Ammiel Alcalay? Why DFW?
    dinesh: No, it’s the same word; that meaning comes under the OED’s “dewan” entry:
    In India: a. The head financial minister or treasurer of a state under former Muslim governments. b. The prime minister of a native state. c. The chief native officer of certain Government establishments, such as the Mint. d. In Bengal, a native servant in charge of the affairs of a house of business or a large domestic establishment, a steward.
    trevor: The OED hasn’t caught up with that one; Cassell says the etymology is unknown.
    Laura: I suspect the “divan” in the name of the dish is the Indian ‘prime minister’ meaning; at any rate, it’s clearly supposed to carry a whiff of the high council chambers of the East, where men in robes and turbans eat the very finest delicacies.
    Toby: Yes, the dictionaries give a word divan ‘sofa, couch’ and another ‘1. Turkish council of state, 2. collection of lyric poetry’; they are of course identical in origin, but are felt to be different words by contemporary speakers — as are the corresponding senses in English, for that matter. I think it would make more sense to list them separately in English dictionaries as well. (Joining them is particularly pernicious in the case of Merriam-Websters, where the common contemporary meaning is buried among the historical/exotic ones.)

  14. At least, Goethe (Ge De 歌德, what a great name for a poet)’s title has been correctly translated in the sinophone world: Xidong shiji 西東詩集 (“West-Eastern Poem Collection”) and not, say, Xidong shafa (sofa).

  15. Jimmy — shouldn’t it be 東西詩集: “Thing Poem Colection”?

  16. Ha, you cannot imagine how much self-control I had to use to resist writing that one. As a matter of fact, many “copy ‘n’ paste” Chinese sites do misquote the title that way (Dongxi shiji).

  17. Self control is bad, Jimmy.

  18. I just remembered that Kant’s Chinese name also includes the 德 de/ German / virtue graph: some form of Kangde.
    Ralph Waldo Emerson is Ai-Mo, “loves solitude” as I remember, but my Chinese teacher told me in no uncertain terms that that name is particular to him, and not a family name I could use. I became Ai “mugwort” (not as bad as it sounds, the Chinese honor mugwort more than we do).
    I didn’t get along with that teacher at all, significantly damaging my already-slender career prospects.

  19. xiaolongnu says

    Speaking of divans, there is a Russian “folk” song called “Sidyel’ Vanya” which plays on the name Vanya and the word “divan” (if you will forgive my rotten Russian transliteration — I do not know what the standard is — and inability to enter Cyrillic):
    Sidyel’ Vanya na divanye (Vanya sat on the divan),
    Stakan romu nalival (And poured a glass of rum);
    Ne nalivshi polstakana (He had not yet filled the glass),
    Sam za Katyenkoi poslal (when he called his Katyenka to him).
    I believe the tune was adapted into a string quartet by one of the 19th century Russian composers. I was quite startled to hear it at a wedding reception some years ago. I’m not sure just how “folk” it is as the setting I know is highly choralized. You can hear it as sung by my old choir (I miss Chicago) at the Golosa.org web site. The group is the Russian folk choir of the University of Chicago — check out other tracks for our Semeiskie style improvised polyphony.

  20. John: Are you familiar with this comprehensive page on mugwort and related plants? I regret to inform you that Ukrainian chornobyl’ [чорнобиль], and Russian chernobyl’ [чернобыль] mean ‘mugwort.’
    xiaolongnu: Great to see you! That composer was Tchaikovsky; he used the tune for the slow movement of his first string quartet (you can hear a 30-second snippet here (mp3)). The text in Cyrillic is:
    Сидел Ваня на диване,
    Стакан рому наливал.
    Не наливши полстакана,
    Сам за Катенькой послал.

  21. Yes, John, Kant’s name is Kang De 康德 and, as you rightly noted, that is the de in De[yizhi]guo 德[意志]國 (Deutschland / Germany). Unsurprisingly, the same character is frequently used to transcribe foreign names (Freud = Fuluoyide 弗洛伊德; Derrida = Delida 德理達, Alain Delon = Yalan Delun 亞蘭德倫, etc.).
    I guess your famous homonym’s mo is the one in desert (shamo 沙漠, poetic root to French “chameau” = camel). Why not choose the mo for “ink” 墨 (but maybe you don’t want to be associated with mohist ideology)? Seriously, I’ll have to check what a “mugwort” is.

  22. That is a great multilingual page. So it is that ai 艾, which relates you to modern writer Ai Qing 艾情, aka Artemisius Affectus (I had mistakenly assumed that ‘mugwort’ referred to the ‘mo’ part). Not bad at all, if you ask me.

  23. xiaolongnu says

    Jimmy, Ai Qing is also the father of two important contemporary Chinese artists, Ai Weiwei 艾未未 (a founding member of the Stars group) and Ai Xuan 艾轩 (a realist painter specializing in Tibetan subjects). I just lectured on these guys in class today.

  24. Thanks, xiaolongnü. I have probably heard of them, but frankly, I didn’t remember.

  25. Michael Farris says

    In Polish, a diwan (w=v) is a carpet.

  26. Huh — that’s weird. (But according to my dictionary it’s dywan, with a y.) In Czech and South Slavic it has the normal range of meanings. I wonder how it wandered to the floor in Poland.

  27. Thanks for the Russian folksong or whatever. I was glad to be able to appreciate the Vanya and na divanye alliteration. How cool is Russian, like Spanish, where the subject and predicate can be inverted.
    And divan = carpet in Polish!!! Just last night I subbed in a beginning adult ESL class full of Salvadorans. There was one lone Polish guy in it. It was a treat to hear his English. And yes, he’s learing Spanish.

  28. michael farris says

    Yes mr. hat, you’re right, dywan. I was (not)preparing for classes when I wrote that and in a hurry/frazzled.
    I have no idea how dywan ended up as carpet, but it might (wild guessing here) have something to do with designs, that is if your classic divan had woven designs on it …

  29. William Cowper, of course, wrote a long poem called The Task, which was all about a sofa. I wonder if it has ever been translated into Persian.

  30. Was it inspired by Crébillon fils’s Le sopha (where the narrator is a man magically changed into a sofa, who reports the words said and actions perpetrated on and around him by unwary “Arabian” princesses and their galants)?

  31. Jeez, that sounds gross. He’d be talking about butts all the time.
    I suppose Crebillon managed to evade that part. Forget I said anything.

  32. I haven’t read much of The Task, but it certainly isn’t based on Le sopha, which I have read but don’t remember too much about. Crébillon was a favourite novelist of the Marquise de Merteuil in Les Liaisons Dangereuses as well as Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair, so he sounded promising, since I like a lot of eighteenth century fiction, but he didn’t seem all that striking to me when I read a couple of his things. I remember it was very “French”, with more cerebration than action (“just exactly what subtle nuance of feeling am I experiencing at this moment?”). There were also quite a few “post-modern” comments on the art of story-telling, which were quite funny. Crébillon also wrote a book called L’Ecumoire, about a Japanese prince whose genitals are transformed into a skimmer. God knows what that’s like.

  33. !

  34. Perhaps the Polish dywan=carpet comes from the fact that most Middle Eastern cultures don’t use chairs, instead opting to sit on the ground–suitably covered with carpets or rugs?

  35. But Poland is by no stretch of the imagination Middle Eastern.

  36. Michael Farris says

    Maybe divans were covered with carpets or something carpet like?

  37. Michael Farris says

    “Poland is by no stretch of the imagination Middle Eastern”
    There is however a long history of relatively friendly (for the region) contacts with middle east cultures and there was a turkic minority in Poland until sometime in the late 19th century (their descendents are still around, they just don’t speak a turkic language anymore).

  38. True, and if the Turks used divan to mean ‘carpet,’ it would make sense for the Poles to. But they don’t, and the Poles don’t sit on carpeted floors.

  39. As I understand, the Uhlans write Polish with Arabic script.

  40. Out of curiosity, I checked Anthimos Papadopoulos’s old Pontic dictionary.
    I didn’t find anything close to divan / div’ani (it does not mean there isn’t; his use of Greek for the transcription of Pontic words is pretty problematic), but i sof’a (note the gender switch: it is o sof’as in standard Greek) is first defined as “a surelevated part of the room” where people gather and sit together (I always imagine something similar to the Chinese kang, but I may be wrong), undoubtedly covered with carpets.
    The second definition is “a wooden bed”.

  41. Inspired by you, I checked Papathanasopoulou’s Rumeliot dictionary and found:
    ntivani to = malako krevati, exostes.
    ‘Soft bed’ makes sense, but ‘balcony’??

  42. I’m surprised as well. Then again, I know close to nothing about Roumeliotic. Meanwhile, I checked with an older Pontic, and it seems that “divan-” was indeed not attested in the patrida.

  43. (Surprised about the definition as “exostis”, I mean.)

  44. Oscar Kaeni says

    what do you think, if i give the name “DIVAN” for my baby, do you agree?

  45. Ana Keshelashvili says

    Fun to be a part of such a discussion, although I find myself not in the best position. Glad to hear that somebody’s reading our student newspaper published in Georgian Journalism School. I’m not sure that you were able to find it on the net, or whether it was at all on the net, but in the print version of the paper we printed apologies for the mistake regarding the title of the book. Unfortunately my editor didn’t appear to be a Goethe or Persian language fan and didn’t trust my English either, so that’s how collection of poems turned into sofa. My mistake was not to include in the article author’s comment regarding the title, stating that the book has nothing to do with Goethe, but it means what it is all about – in other words, it is a collection of poems translated from western and eastern authors.

    As for Wallace, isn’t it an American author? I haven’t read, but I believe this shouldn’t be you:) Well, accept my apologies, but as you probably know, there are several people involved in coding the material for the research. Even though I’m not sure I remember coding your blog by myself, I don’t want to blame any of my coders for that mistake and won’t go back to find out who really took Wallace for the blog author’s name, but I accept responsibility and apologise for that. Sorry for late comment, I just came across your blog accidentally today, so…

    Anyway, I’m glad to hear that my english (which is my third language) is becoming an issue for discussions on your blog – that must mean something:)

  46. Hi, Ana! Your English is great, and I’m glad it turned out to be an editorial mistake rather than yours (and I apologize on behalf of my profession, which is editing). Yes, Wallace is an American author, and quite a decent one, but I didn’t like a long article he wrote on grammar and attacked it, so I was pretending to be insulted that he was listed as author of my blog. I was actually highly amused. And I’m glad you found your way to my blog; if I get back to studying Georgian, I may ask you for help!

  47. Ana Keshelashvili says

    Thank you:) Will take into consideration and get a copy of Wallace’s article on grammar:) I guess there’s too much to edit on the net and it must keep you pretty busy, but if you ever get back to studying Georgian, I hope I can be of some help.

  48. In European French ‘divan’ is a word that means “couch” while Quebecois French prefers ‘sofa’. e.g.
    Le chat dort sur le divan.
    Le chat dort sur le sofa.
    “The cat is sleeping on the couch”.
    A synonym for ‘divan’ in European French seems to be ‘canapé.’

  49. marie-lucie says

    Brian: The cat is sleeping on the couch: couch does not mean the same everywhere in the English-speaking word.
    A synonym for ‘divan’ in European French seems to be ‘canapé.’
    Didn’t we discuss le divan just a few days ago? I remember defining the French word: a bed without a headboard and footboard. Un canapé is not the same as un divan since it has at least a backrest (sometimes replaced by cushions), and usually also armrests. It is actually what is called in Canada (in French and English) “sofa”. The French equivalent of a “sofa bed” is un canapé-lit, a convertible piece of furniture. You don’t normally need to say un divan-lit since a divan, from its shape and design, can serve as a bed as it is, all you need to add are bed linens and pillows. Un divan can also do double duty as a sofa if you add a few cushions and bolsters.

  50. Interestingly, if you do a Google image search of ‘divan’, you’ll find a lot of sofas depicted.

  51. The OED lists only one English word of Sumerian origin (it doesn’t bring the chiton/tunic doublet past its immediate sources): petasi ‘Sumerian priest/king’. What’s odd about that is that the reading is now understood to be enki, for whatever reason spelled PE.TA.SI. I searched AHD4 for more Sumerian words, but none.

  52. Maybe purim, from pur ‘lot’, from Persian, thence from Akkadian pūru ‘lot’, homophonous with (and maybe deriving from) pūru ‘bowl’, a Sumerian loanword.

  53. The OED lists only one English word of Sumerian origin (it doesn’t bring the chiton/tunic doublet past its immediate sources): petasi ‘Sumerian priest/king’.

    What edition are you using? I just did an advanced search of the online 3rd ed. (which would have found it even in etymologies, let alone as a lemma) and got “No results found for ‘petasi’.”

  54. Sorry, it should be patesi.

  55. Thanks. An odd and unfortunate business:

    Etymology: < Sumerian PA.TE.SI (a sign combination form now read énsi, with a proposed reading ensik, representing the full form) ruler, governor.

    The reading patesi was formerly believed to be correct. It is unclear why énsi or ensik was written with the signs PA.TE.SI.

    Couldn’t we just sweep this misbegotten word under the rug and pretend it never happened?

  56. There is also “mina” – ancient unit of weight (and also a monetary unit) equal to 1/60 of talent – a bit less than one pound.

    It’s first mentioned in Sumerian texts as “mana”.

  57. There is also “mina” – ancient unit of weight (and also a monetary unit) equal to 1/60 of talent – a bit less than one pound.

    It’s first mentioned in Sumerian texts as “mana”.

    Not to get too Nostratic about it, but moon, month, et al, attested in many Germanic languages, also indicate a kind of measure. As does Sanskrit mimīte, he measures, Hebrew מנה mana, he counted (and a host of derivatives), plus cognates in other Semitic languages.

    Aren’t the first efforts at writing generally taken to be signs for numbers, quantities, etc., as needed for trade?

  58. petasi, patesi, petasi, patesi, let’s call the whole thing off!

    From the Zompist spelling reform page:

    While we’re at it, could we please fix the word ginkgo, which is not only difficult and irregular, but doesn’t reflect any proper Japanese word? The Japanese characters (銀杏) can be read two ways: as ichō, they refer to the tree; as ginnan, to the fruit. The second character can [also] be read kyō: in other words, so someone misread the combination as ginkyō, and someone else mangled this into ginkgo.

    Pronunciations include “GINK-o” (AmE, BrE) and “GINK-go” (BrE).

  59. David Marjanović says

    The reading patesi was formerly believed to be correct. It is unclear why énsi or ensik was written with the signs PA.TE.SI.

    That’s where the paper comes in that I found yesterday. Which thread was that again…

  60. David Marjanović says

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