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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.

2 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 .

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