This seems like such a trivial subject, but I’ve often wondered about it. I live in Washington (the state not DC) and I’ve always called it a purse as do my friends. I know someone who grew up in the Boston area and she calls it a pocketbook. I’ve never heard anyone say handbag, but I’ve seen it used in ads for department stores. I suspect these words are regional. Any ideas?
I grew up in New York state, and my mother’s everyday, workhorse carryall was always a pocketbook. On formal occasions she would carry her bare essentials in a tiny purse. I think you’re right: handbag is merchantspeak. My wife (in Alaska) carries her stuff in the pockets of her jeans. On formal occasions, she says to me, “Here, carry this for me.” She does carry what she calls “my bag,” but that functions more as a briefcase than as a purse, and doesn’t always come home with her. Come to think of it, my grandmother called her purse/pocketbook “my bag.”
I don’t know if one instance in Boston and one in small-town New York constitute regional usage, but it gives you two data points in the Northeast!
I believe handbag is more British usage, purse more North American. Much was (and since the film with Meryl Streep is once again) made of Mrs Thatcher’s forceful use of her handbag, and I’ve never seen it referred to a purse in that context.
Then there is the famous “capacious” handbag in which Ernest/Jack in the Importance of Being Ernest was allegedly found in a railway station cloakroom. The way Aunt Augusta repeats “in a handbag” with a combination of scorn, astonishment and condescension when she hears of this unfortunate origin of the foundling is a classic. I can’t imagine pronouncing the monosyllabic “purse” or “bag” with anything approaching that tone of voice (see the film version with Dame Edith Evans playing Lady Bracknell/Aunt Augusta!)
I’m from Australia and happened upon this site in my quest to find out what a pocketbook is. We don’t use that term at all in Australia. We use “handbag” to mean the bag with straps that women carry. Our purse goes into our handbag and carries our money, both coins and paper money. A wallet is used by men and only carries paper money. An evening bag is called that, or perhaps a handbag if it has straps or a purse if it doesn’t.
Weighing in from the Midwest on this. My mom had two “purses” … the casual one with a strap, and the formal (smaller) one with just a hand grip. In either she could carry her “billfold” and her “coin pouch” (plastic thingy you would squeeze to open). She kept her coins and bills separate.
My dad seemed to use “billfold” and “wallet” interchangeably for what he carried. Coins went into his side pocket.
megativity said You wouldn’t really hear a young person say “pocketbook” though.
For reasons I cannot pin down (though hasten to assure readers nothing nefarious will be found if pinned down), I associate pocketbook with careful senior women.
Almost certainly today’s more common references are those symbolic of consumers’ spending powers.
But here’s another data point: novelist Emma Cline, a Millennial Californian, has her character use the word, who was a Californian youth joining the Manson cult of the 1960s: page 308 in her book: “she blinked with delayed recognition, like I was a stranger returning her forgotten pocketbook.”
Impossible questions of origin: A book-like thing used as a pocket? Such thing that’s small enough to go into a clothing pocket? A bank checkbook that’s stored in a pocket?