purses and bags

Kate, a Canadian attached to a South African, wonders about handbags, having noticed that Britishoid Englishes use that term where North Americans would say purse. What's more confusing is that the word purse is used in BrE, but for a different kind of object than in AmE.

The thing to the right (from phulbari.com) is called a handbag in BrE, and a purse in AmE. One can say handbag in AmE, but it sounds rather old-fashioned. In keeping with that feeling, I'd tend to reserve the term for vintage items (when speaking in American environs). Handbag can be used to refer to most handled women's accessories for carrying around life's essentials—money, lipstick (lippy: BrE informal, orig. AusE), (BrE) mobile/ (AmE) cell phone, Syndol--which itself is a major reason to emigrate to Britain. Longer-handled ones might also be called shoulder bags (as they could be in AmE as well). But in everyday BrE life they all tend to be called just bags--as in I have some Syndol in my bag--want some?

Purse in BrE is a (typically women's) leather/cloth/etc. thing that money goes directly into--like the ones at the left, from Arnold & Arnold. Thus female BrE speakers usually have purses inside their bags. AmE retains this sense of purse in change purse. For North Americans, the things on the left are wallets. If it's in a man's pocket, it's wallet in both dialects--but my dad (like others in his AmE-speaking generation) calls his a billfold.

BrE has a few handbag idioms worth noting. Handbags at dawn (also a great name for a band) or handbags at ten paces is a way of referring to a usually loud, public fight--originally among footballers. This is sometimes shortened to handbags. The OED's earliest citation for this is 1987, but they're looking for earlier ones. To handbag is an established verb in BrE, meaning 'to assault with a handbag', and can also be used figuratively, meaning 'to verbally assault or criticise', as in:
Not since Mrs Thatcher handbagged her cabinet into attending a seminar on climate change at Number 10 had so many senior Tories been seen doing something green in one place. -- The Telegraph

Kate's Canadianness has reminded me that I haven't reported an instance of being assumed Canadian. It happened last weekend at the Scrabble tournament, though to be fair it was after I was explaining the differences between Canadian, American and British spelling. Who but a Canadian would know such things? I would, apparently.

(Links to commercial sites here are just (a) to acknowledge the sources of photos and (b) prevent people asking me "where did you get that bag/purse?" Now you know already. This is not an endorsement of these companies/products, but they are rather pretty, aren't they?)


  1. oooh... now that's service! Thanks for the fascinating details and for the link. I can't wait to try handbagging - oh that doesn't good at all in a Canadian context. Maybe not.

  2. I've actually just bought a purse (/ wallet) from those Arnold & Arnold people as a result - do you get commission? :) (I was looking for a new one anyway, I'm not a total sucker!)

  3. Maybe I should try to do a deal with them...

  4. It's a handbag to me whether it's a shoulder bag or whatever. I think I realised I'd become a woman the day I called it a handbag instead of my schoolbag or similar. Those are nice purses!

    An American friend confused me the other day saying she was looking for a 'Messenger Bag' on eBay, but I think that's just me, because when I looked on ebay.co.uk there were hundreds.

  5. Rebecca's messenger bag reminded me of the Scots message bag. In my youth, we "went the messages", carrying a message bag, rather than "did the shopping," carrying a shopping bag. Don't see many message bags nowadays; plastic carrier bags have taken over.

  6. Carrier bag, for what it's worth, is also BrE. In AmE they'd just be called bags, or, in some parts of the US, sacks.

  7. Honestly, the thing that comes to mind is the baby in the handbag in the Importance of Being Earnest lol! So I was surprised to learn just now that it could also cover something the size of what I call a purse. Personally, I find myself in denial that I am adult enough to carry a purse, so I generally just call mine a bag...

  8. There are a lot of regional differences in the States as well. I remember a friend from SC being very insulted when I used the term purse for her pocketbook. We compromised by calling it a handbag.

    Do you think people from the Southeast have more of a British influence than those from other US states? Just wondering.

  9. I forgot about pocketbook. I'd only use it for the kind of things that the Queen or Margaret Thatcher would carry--a fairly rigid case, carried in the hand rather than on the shoulder, smaller than a loaf of bread.

    OED lists this as now chiefly US. I think of it as something one's grandmother would say (and one's grandmother isn't from the South). I don't think this is a signal of more UK influence in the Southeast. Since there's been quite a bit of time since there have been largish UK emigrations to the US, what one tends to see is not more UK influence in some places than others, but different influence--either because people from different parts of Britain settled in different places in the US, or because some things that have been preserved in some places have been lost in others. Appalachia, for example, had a lot of Scottish settlement, and therefore has some different words and features than other regions. Language has been changing on both sides of the Atlantic and in every community since those settlements happened, so the similarities between one dialect and another tend to be patchy.

  10. Oh, I'd forgotten about pocketbook, too. It's another one of those words I've had to banish from my vocabulary. That's what all purses/handbags were called (pronounced pockabook) where I grew up.

  11. Hmm. I'm a native New Yorker and call the thing I carry a handbag. Purse and pocketbook to me sound prim; and neither one of those sounds like it would hold the enormous amount of crap I typically haul around with me (though when I have an especially large quantity to carry, I do use a messenger bag). My mother, who's originally from Atlanta, also refers to it as a handbag.

    As for carry bags, one of my favorite songs by Manchester's The Fall is called "Carry Bag Man." The lyric

    "I've no time to sit comfortable down
    But I still need armchairs round my home
    To put carrier bags on"

    pretty well describes the state of affairs at my house. I have a lot of bags.

  12. Hmmm, i don't think Mark E Smith is referring to nice handbags, or even rucksacks or messenger bags, but to supermarket plastic grocery bags (filled with some obsessively-collected junk like used envelopes, or maybe just more plastic bags..). I hope your home isn't be in the same state as the type of place that lyric brings to mind! :)

    (My new purse arrived yesterday, and i'm very pleased with it, by the way.)

  13. Yes, Ally, I've always assumed that MES was referring to nasty plastic grocery bags. That only makes it funnier.

    I believe "sack" is regional in the U.S., incidentally. When I worked in a bookstore in Sacramento, CA, some customers would ask, "Can I get a sack for that?" Being a salty little punk, I was always tempted to reply, "Sure, thing, Santa Claus," that being the only context in which I'd ever heard "sack" used. They'd also say "Thanks much!" which irritated me much. Cranky, cranky.

  14. Oh, ok, cool. Just wanted to make sure!

  15. I have never heard anyone say purse unless they're trying to act rich or better then everyone else and usually those people are nasty.

  16. Surely “Handbags at dawn” was a parody of the past when honour was satisfied by a duel at dawn. Mrs Thatcher was known for her no-nonsense and often uncompromising approach, so anybody who attempted to thwart her was “handbagged”.

  17. I'm glad I found this because I'd gotten confused on this recently. I'm not a native English speaker but I lived in the UK and I don't find it very easy to remember all the differences with American English, so when this friend of mine from NY didn't understand when I referred to her 'bag' and insisted 'we say purse in English', I had a chuckle, looked at her and said 'no, perhaps you say purse in American English, but I've always used bag, I'm sure that's what they call it in Britain anyway, where the purse is the wallet', but she just insisted it was me being wrong, like there couldn't possibly be another form of English other than the one she spoke! which is funny because Brits do that all the time too when they hear Americans speak ('that's not proper English' and all).
    It's all so unpractical isn't it. I don't want to be caught in this language rivalry. I just want it easy! I still have to check myself to know when to use 'petrol' and 'gas', nevermind bags and purses...

  18. I thought this was interesting, posted by Joan Hall on the American Dialect Society list (DARE = Dictionary of American Regional English):

    'Luanne von Schneidemesser wrote a short article summarizing DARE's
    findings about synonyms for /purse/ in /American Speech/ 55.74-76.
    Here's the relevant passage:

    "Purse, pocketbook, and handbag are all standard terms reported from all parts of the country. Yet purse, according to DARE's 569 responses, is not quite as frequent in the Northeast and coastal Atlantic states as it is to the west of those areas. In the eastern areas, pocketbook (395 responses) appears about as often as purse; but farther west, it becomes
    sparser. . . . Handbag, with its 114 responses is also scattered over the United States, although it was offered 10 times (from a total of 18 interviews) in Maryland alone. However, its use is related to age. Of the informants who reported using it, 88 percent were sixty or more years old. That age group constitutes only 66 percent of the total DARE sample."'

  19. The inference of "handbags at 10 paces" when used of footballers (and men in general" is the rather sexist notion that the fight is more sound and fury than actual violence, and that nobody was seriously hurt ...

  20. I'm with mcornell: it implies effeminate slaps and girlie punches, rather than damaging violence. It is deliberately sexist, designed to shame and ridicule the offenders. Not in order to escalate the level. It also helps convey to listeners at home how serious (or not) the confrontation was. This is made all the more interesting by the fact that one rugged kiwi rugby player, Tana Umanga, assaulted a team mate, Chris Masoe, in a bar (differs form a BrE pub, as the drinks start at $9, similar to the flat vs. apartment thing) with a woman’s (BrE) handbag due to Chris’s boorish behaviour toward another female patron. Mr Masoe burst into tears. I believe Mr Masoe weighs in excess of 105kg and is over 6 feet tall and plays (or played) like Mr Umanga, for the national rugby team. Maybe there is something to handbag fights after all. Or maybe it’s just a bad omen for our national team in the lead up to this year’s rugby world cup in France...

  21. My distinction between a "purse" and a "pocketbook" is quite different than Lynne's. I think of a pocketbook as a bag a woman would carry that would have everything she could need for the day (wallet, keys, make-up, sunglasses, candy, gloves, etc. ), but a purse is smaller and would only contain the essentials. I would also include a "clutch" in this mix, meaning a small bag without a strap that might only have a lipstick, an ID, and a house key in it. Something a lady would take to a party.

  22. I would say the same as John. I'm from the Philly suburbs originally and later in the city itself. I've always called the thing with handles a pocketbook and the smaller thing that has essentials like makeup and keys is a purse and goes inside the pocketbook. A wallet has credit cards and cash and goes inside the purse. I get confused when a girl asks me to hand her a purse. It seems to me like she wants me to go digging through her pocketbook to find it!

  23. In BrE I'd say the wallet/purse difference is about purpose not the sex of the owner. A wallet is for notes; a purse is mainly or exclusively for coins. It may contain notes too but must have a decent sized coin compartment and will tend to be "round" rather than flat in format, and often has a rather feminine clip to hold it closed. Men don't often use purses because they generally carry coins in their pockets (though purses for men do or did exist) but today women often use wallets. I *think* the masculine type of purse is called a coin purse which is presumably the same as a chage purse.

  24. Sac is the French word for a bag, and as a lot of the Southern states of America were French owned, I wonder if that is where sac came from. Also, cul-de-sac, neck of the bag, is a common name for a British street that only has one entry point, also known less formally as 'dead end'. But Britain was also ruled by the French from 1066. My mum is Scottish and when grocery shopping she says she's going for her messages. Language! fascinating

  25. Anonymous

    But Britain was also ruled by the French from 1066.

    But that didn't go on and on to 1738, which is the date of the earliest use known to the OED of cul de sac in English.

  26. Just gonna say - Im English, Living in England with my Canadian step-family , getting "handbagged" or "handbags at dawn" is either completely made up or really old people use it sparingly , I've never heard it don't know anyone who would ever use it. And a pocket book in the Uk would refer to an A5 notepad or a diary/planner . .

  27. I'm English. I have a purse purse for coins, which I keep in the left pocket of my trousers, and a wallet for notes and driving licence, which I keep in my back pocket(well buttoned/zipped against the danger of pickpockets).

  28. British here - agree with John Wells, "purse" originally referred to a small fastenable (usually zip up) bag for storing change. A wallet is the foldable type that holds bills and typically has no place to store change.

    There are wallet / purse hybrids that have a change pouch and a wide flap to store bills, plus (typically) a place to hold cards inside and an ID card / Bus pass holder on the back. These hybrids are the norm now and both men and women tend to use them (older men still use the wallets though it seems). Women tend to refer to them as purses and men as wallets but they're usually the same thing (with minor differences / decoration).

    Bags: A shoulderbag is any long-ish strapped bag made to be comfortably worn on the shoulder. We tend to just refer to them as bags. Both men and women use them (though the ones designed for men tend to look either like record bags or briefcases because there's still some weird stigma about men using bags unless they're for some higher purpose like DJ-ing or carrying your laptop / paper files to work).

    A handbag in common usage in London at least, typically refers to a much shorter strapped bag made to be carried or worn much higher up (just under the armpit normally) it's typically smaller than a shoulder bag. Only women typically use them and they're usually designed for women. They're called HAND bags because you can hold them by the strap and carry them like a shopping bag (i.e. they have short straps and are small enough to be carried in the hand and not drag on the floor). In London women tend to carry them on the shoulder pinned under their arms to prevent thieves snatching them or pickpocketing them...

    Then there's a clutch which doesn't have a strap at all - these are also intended for use by women and typically are very feminine in design. I think these bags are useless and idiotic and defeat the purpose of a bag to be honest... I obviously don't own one :p

  29. I found this post while arguing about purse and pocketbook with my spouse. He says and agrees purse is a small bag etc. He’s from New York, USA. I grew up in Louisiana and Purse is what my family called your everyday handbag. However when you went out in the evening the small clutch (with or with out a strap) was an called an “evening bag.” When I go home to visit family I have to remember to say “purse, sack, wagon and bucket or I get teased!


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)