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shameless pleading






So I guess I’ll have to rob two banks next month, right?

Dear Word Detective: So, my husband and I were talking over some finer points of our finances, when he mentioned that, as a married couple, we are one flesh and one pocketbook. It struck me for the first time what an odd word “pocketbook” is for a woman’s purse or handbag. I know that “purse,” “pouch,” and “pocket” all come from the same root word, but where does the “book” part come in? Also, it seems that using “pocketbook” instead of “handbag” or “purse” is a regional thing (my grandmother from the outskirts of Philly would never be caught without her pocketbook!). Is this the case? — Heather.

Aw, that’s sweet. Gosh, aren’t those budget discussions fun? I especially enjoy the ones at 4 am. Don’t get me wrong; I’m glad somebody in our house is paying attention to this stuff. My financial planning doesn’t amount to much beyond turning out the lights when I leave a room and watching for bargains on peanut butter.

Onward. Our modern words “pouch” and “pocket” are indeed related, but “purse” is actually from a completely unrelated source. Both “pocket” and “pouch” can be traced to the Old French “poche” (“bag”), which also gave us “poke,” a large sack. (This “poke” is best known from the admonition “Don’t buy a pig in a poke,” originally warning of dishonest merchants who were said to pass off stray cats in burlap bags as energetic sucking pigs.) The same root also gave us “to poach,” to illegally hunt game animals, which were then furtively stuffed in sacks.
“Purse,” on the other hand, comes from the Late Latin “bursa,” which meant “animal hide, leather” as well as “money bag” (and also gave us “bursar,” an official in charge of funds at an institution). The change of the initial “b” to a “p” was probably influenced by the Old English word “pusa,” from Germanic roots, also meaning “bag.”

When “purse” first appeared in Old English (and, indeed, for most of its history), it meant a small bag, usually made of leather or another flexible material, with a secure closure at its top, used by both men and women to carry money (and today often called a “coin purse”). “Purse” quickly developed several extended and figurative meanings, e.g., the amount of money at stake in a horse race or the sum of one’s personal wealth. The tight closure of purses gave us the verb phrase “to purse one’s lips,” meaning to press them tightly together. “Purse” was also used to mean several other sorts of bags, and in the US of the mid-1950s, it became common for the larger handbag carried by women to be termed a “purse.”

When “pocketbook” first appeared in the early 17th century, it meant simply a book small enough to fit in one’s pocket, but soon came to mean a leather folder in which notes, bills, important documents and other items could be carried. Not until the early 19th century was “pocketbook” used to mean a large purse (often with handles) carried by women and containing various necessities (usually including a small “purse” for money). “Pocketbook,” like “purse,” soon acquired a variety of figurative meanings, and the perpetual budget fights in Congress often invoke dire warnings about the nation’s “pocketbook.”

In terms of usage, “pocketbook” for a large purse is most often heard in the US; the same item in the UK is more often simply called a “purse.” Within the US, both “pocketbook” and “purse” are popular in the east (with “pocketbook” having an edge in New England), but in western states “purse” is far more common. The ungainly term “handbag,” commonly found in advertising, news stories and police blotters, is apparently remarkably unpopular among women in the real world, although the short form “bag” is often used. “Clutch” (short for “clutch bag,” a small handbag without straps or handles) appeared in the late 1940s.

11 comments to Pocketbook

  • Victoria

    Just putting down a marker that this sense of ‘pocketbook’ exists only west of the Atlantic. Over here in the UK, if a woman in a club or bar cried ‘I’ve lost my pocketbook! Can anybody find it?’ everybody would start looking for a notepad, Filofax, pocket diary, or something like that. We don’t associate the word with purses at all, let alone handbags.

  • Deborah

    My grandmother came from Norway and she always referred to her purse as her pocketbook. It was usually about 14 inches long, flat and black. As a child in the 1950s I was mystified .

    • Dan S.

      My mother still calls her purse her pocketbook. Yeah, it confused me too as a child, especially since we had a number of paperback books that were clearly labeled with the name “Pocket Books”. But if my mother spoke about her pocketbook, she certainly didn’t mean one of those.

  • Janet M.

    I always liked the idea of the reticule, and the word’s connection with Roman gladiators!

  • Is it regional? I picked up at other sites that in Philly environs this item was always called a ‘pockabook’ and that is exactly what we said in Paterson, NJ. ‘Purse’ was fancy; ‘handbag’ some commercial term, like ‘toilet tissue’. I’m embarassed and don’t know what to call it because afraid ‘pockabook’ is bad regional dialect. Fortunately I don’t carry one.

  • Beth Vansyckle

    I found your site looking up any history on a 1950s, 60s, 70s term for insurance salesmen who sold very inexpensive burial policies. They were called burlap pockets. These salesmen sold door to door and collected the nickels, dimes, or quarters weekly.

    Do you know where the term burlap bag in this context came from?


  • Linda

    My mother and both my grandmothers used the term “pocketbook”. They live/d in northern New Jersey. One day I asked my grandson if he had seen my pocketbook lying around anywhere and he didn’t know what I was referring to. I switched over to using “purse” many years ago, but sometimes the “pocketbook” slips out!

  • Julie

    I love the way language forms little evolutionary branches. This was such an interesting read. In the UK i’ve only recently heard the use of purse to mean handbag/bag, it seems to have re-entered our usage in a limited way via US media. I mostly (only ever until recently) heard purse to refer to the ‘coin purse’, although we don’t use coin purse either, just purse.

  • Judy

    I grew up and live in the suburbs of Philly. My 100 year old mother grew up in center city Philadelphia. All generations of women here have always refered to their pocketbooks. If I mix it up and use the word purse, everyone knows that I am referring to my pocketbook.

  • jerry

    Men use wallets. Never purses or pocketbooks. Can you imagine asking your grandfather, in his 70s-80’s, “Gramps, can I get a dollar out of your pocketbook for ice cream?” No, you’d ask your grandmother that way.

    How many men go shopping for a pocketbook? Maybe a paperback dime novel, but not to put money and id’s in. Geez. Now I wonder what the Scots who wear kilts (skirts) use…..

  • Julia Faraci

    Jerry: a sporran is a sort of wallet for a kilt wearer.

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