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Bag vs. Sack, Paper vs. Plastic

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If someone asks for their groceries in a bag, does that mean they want paper or plastic? Jean-Patrick in Dallas, Texas, has had plenty of experience bagging groceries, and says his customers use the term bag specifically to mean the paper kind. We don’t have evidence that there are different names for these containers in different parts of the country, but we’d love to hear from you on this one. This is part of a complete episode.

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  • I live in Indiana. I use the term “bag” for all kinds of grocery-carrying contrivances (paper, plastic, canvas re-usable…..). (I only use “sack” for “sack races” and in reference to sack-cloth clothing during the Depression!) However, I have noticed that my mother-in-law (raised in Ohio) says “sack” to refer to a plastic grocery bag. I sort of get the logic of the usage your caller noted, because to me, a “sack” is a soft, formless container that can’t stand up on its own, such that a paper bag could never be called a sack, so perhaps if sack is in common usage in that area, the use of “paper” with “bag” seems redundant. But I’m with Jean-Patrick; I would not feel comfortable making an assumption about the bagging preference of the customer until I heard the word “plastic” or “paper.”

  • About “bag” meaning paper bags: I work in a grocery store in Madison, WI, and I have had the exact same experience as your caller. The vast majority of my customers will say “paper” or “plastic” when I ask them if they want paper or plastic, but every once in a while someone will just reply with “a bag.” When I ask them if they mean a paper or plastic bag, they act like I just asked them a really stupid question.

  • This one is so weird; I’ve heard the opposite. As a former bagger at a Meijer store in Michigan, I always got the word “sack” for a paper bag, mostly from senior citizens (62 +). When someone requested a sack, I always took it to mean brown paper bag without confusion. Just as some say “sack lunch,” to indicates a brown paper lunch bag. A “gunny sack” made of burlap is typically brownish and may be where the sack reference comes from for paper bags. They’re both brown. I also think of “ransacked,” which Merriam Webster says is to “search thoroughly,” the example sentence involving robbers. I always thought it was because robbers “ran” in and “sacked” or collected/bagged up your belongings, in the process leaving a Tasmanian Devil-like mess of things.

  • I think he was being a bit crabby, annoyed with what he considered a dumb question. He wants a paper bag not a plastic one and was giving the poor kid a bad time

  • I’m catching up on podcasts and I was so happy to hear this question asked. I confuse people all the time and I don’t mean to. I grew up in southern Illinois and I use the words “bag” and “sack” interchangeably. But I have been living in Massachusetts since the 1980’s and if I don’t ask for a “bag” in this part of the country I get funny looks. No one seems to think of a “sack” as something one would take things home from the store or lunch counter. When I correct myself and say I’d like a bag, their faces clear right up.

  • I was raised in Northern Montana, about 45 minutes from the Canadian Border. For me, it is a “paper bag” or a “plastic sack”. If you say a “plastic bag”, you would be understood but there is no such thing as a “paper sack”. I’ve also lived in New York and in Kansas City and they usually use bag for both, many never use the term sack.

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