In a recent web search I came across a museum for handbags in the Netherlands that I never knew existed. This reminded me of a discussion on the Vintage Fashion Guild a few months back about the definitions of the words ‘purse’ and ‘bag’. The responses revealed a surprising list of various regional definitions.
For the English (and Australians), a purse is what North Americans call a ladie’s change or coin purse while most North Americans think of ‘purse’ as a generic term. The term handbag is used in England to mean specifically the accessory carried by ladies, while in North America, the term is specific to a small bag with one or two handles to hold onto or loop over your wrist. In the U.S. handbags are generally considered to be a more formal version of a ‘bag’ which covers all forms of everyday hand and shoulder bags of various sizes (but for totes or backpacks.)
The largest difference between Canadians and Americans was the American use of the old English term ‘pocketbook’ which originated from a type of wallet that fit into the pocket in the 18th century. The term was first used to describe a woman’s hard sided handbag in 1816, as opposed to a drawstring closed soft-sided reticule (aka dorothy bag). Pocketbook is now an archaic word in England and Canada and becoming increasingly scarce in the U.S. but is still used by some to describe the difference between a soft and hard sided handbag.
For the English, a wallet is a masculine style of purse, whereas in North America there are men’s and ladie’s wallets, with men’s wallets (aka billfolds) being smaller to fit into back pockets of trousers (or as Americans would say – pants).
While all of this can be confusing, just remember one important thing, if you travel to England just call your ‘fannypack’ a money belt…