Why do Americans call purses "pocketbooks"?

I noticed it when I was little and reading Nancy Drew - she was always putting stuff in her “pocketbook”, which confused me because I was picturing a little paperback novel with her lipstick, etc. stuffed between the pages.

Then I realized that “pocketbook” is another word for “purse”, but I’ve never heard it called that in Canada.

Do they call purses “pocketbooks” in any other country? How did it get that name?

It’s not all Americans, it’s just an older generation. My dad and older coworkers will call it a pocketbook all the time, but people of my generation (born in the eighties) never do. Kind of like how a shirt used to be called a blouse, but no one under the age of 40 calls it that.

And, just to confuse things “Pocket Books” was the name of a line of paperbacks. They had a kangaroo as its icon (because it has that pouch, after all).


It’s also slang for the vagina in some circles.

And handbag? Seriously?

Just to clarify, am I right in thinking that a “pocketbook” would be a purse small enough to fit into a pocket?

Pocketbooks are small purses but not necessarily small enough to fit in a pocket, I think. (Well–maybe in large coat pockets come to think of it.)

I was thinking maybe it was a “pocketbook” because it was a “book of pockets”, at least at some point in its evolution.

To me, pocketbook and purse are synonymous. My mom and women older than she will still say pocketbook. I’ll say purse or bag. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard anyone say handbag outside of old TV shows or movies.

It originally meant “wallet,” as we call them today (or “billfold” as another generation might). Later it was extended to purses. Usage for either case has apparently dropped a lot.

I love to use the word pocketbook. I associate it with my small-town upbringing. It’s true it’s not much used, but if you do use it, everyone knows what you’re talking about.

“Honey, grab me my pocketbook; I want to get my Nabs from this morning at the drugstore. Oh and a fresh pack of cigarettes.”

And as women’s clothes lost pockets and they started carrying purses, they put their “pocketbooks” in their purses (or “handbags.”) Eventually the names got merged.

I’ve lived my entire life in the US and have heard of the term, but never made the connection to “purse” until this thread. I’m not sure what I assumed it meant.

Handbag seems to be women’s clothing store-speak. Like how they never sell pants, but will sell you a “pant.” :rolleyes:

“Clutch” is another term for what is basically a big wallet/small purse with no handles.

I never knew pocketbook as a synonym for anything other than wallet. Maybe because I was a boy so when my elderly grandmother told me to put a piece of paper in my pocketbook it had to be my wallet.

I also heard it in the political expression, “People vote their pocketbooks”, which was the pre-Clinton version of “It’s the economy, stupid”. In that context it meant wallet, since it applied to both men and women.

I’d say no one under the age of 80.

Mid-50s and have never heard anyone call a normal shirt a blouse. A ladies’ top, yes.

As for pocketbooks, that may be a regional usage. I never heard anyone, young or old, calling it that in West Texas. Or anyplace else I ever lived in the US (Southwest and Hawaii).


I always assumed it meant those combination wallet/coin-purse/checkbook dealios that women kept in their purses. I wasn’t ever around people who used the term too often, though.

From a 1980 piece in “American Speech”

*Diary of American Regional English

My guess is that in the 30 some years since this was written, usage has further dropped. I was born in '77, in the Midwest, and “pocketbook” and “handbag” have always seemed old-timey to me.

Why is a woman’s purse called a pocketbook?

TL;DR - evolved from meaning a book which could fit into your pocket, to a similarly sized case with compartments to carry books or papers.

My mom always had her pocketbook, ie purse. I always associate them with checks, though, for some reason. The pocketbook is the place you put your checkbook and money, in my head, and that fits with the ‘vote with your pocketbook’ . And yeah, if you think of pocketbook as the wallet you put your checkbook into, it can all fit into a purse.

See? Easy peasy. :stuck_out_tongue:

This is new information to me. I hear blouse all the time. I guess this area didn’t get the memo back in 1942. I also hear bag and handbag a lot. In fact, and we’re going back some 30 years here, I had a friend who got absolutely incensed that someone called her bag a purse. Oh, the social cluelessness! Didn’t the social misfit know the difference?