Handbags vs. Purses

Handbags vs. Purses

Handbags or Purses?

It’s been asked numerous times. Is there a difference between handbags and purses? Well, it depends on where you are from.

The British English meaning of “purse” is a coin purse, wallet, or pocketbook. If you’re from England, you might carry a purse inside of a handbag.

The American English meaning of “purse” has become synonymous with “handbag” which means the term can describe all types of handbags including clutches, satchels, totes, hobos, and more.

So if you’re in America, the answer is no, there is no difference between purses and handbags. If you’re in the UK, the answer is yes.

Now I’ve seen several explanations as to why some in America say “purse” and others say “handbag”. Rumor has it that men say “purse” more often than women, but I can’t find any proof of that. Some speculate it has to do with age and generation, but I have heard both “handbag” and “purse” from people young and old. I have also read that some prefer to say “purse” when describing shoulder bags and “handbag” when describing bags carried by hand such as satchels and clutches.

I believe that the use of purse vs. handbag is simply a personal preference which is not necessarily tied to other factors like age or type of bag.

So which do you say? Comment on this post and let us know. I prefer handbag myself.

Written by Shari Mathias


  1. Nicole · 07/29/2011

    I am an English teacher and I’m making a book for Koreans about all the mistakes they make when speaking English. I couldn’t decide if I should mention this as a “mistake” or not until I checked this site. I think what you said is entirely accurate and so I’m going to leave this term out of my book. Peronally, I like the British version of purse, though I’m American. But I also think “handbags” are to be held in hands (clutches). And it’s definitely a generation thing because my mother calls it a “pocket book”.

  2. Marie · 01/17/2012

    I call what I carry my personal items and money around with me in a “purse” even though I keep my credit cards and paper money in a “wallet” and my coins in a “coin purse.” It’s funny, my family is from the British Isles and I’ve never heard anyone from here (California) or there (England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, or Northern Ireland) use the term “handbag” or “pocketbook” when referring to their purse.

    My parents were born over there and I have been there many times over the last 40 or so years visiting all kinds of people and places in Europe, so it is interesting that it is stated as a generalization that this still goes on and hasn’t changed – like we out in the Old West still call our purses “reticules.” Oh well, IMHO.

    BTW, the people who I found use pocketbook seem to come from rural locales in California and the East Coast and the South.

  3. Maria · 06/14/2012

    I always used the term pocketbook from the 1950’s in NY then started using the word purse since I moved to Florida 10 years ago. I think I picked up the term purse in Florida? I live on the Gulf Coast if that helps.

  4. fivekitten · 09/03/2012

    Funny “pocketbook” came up. I’m from NY, and had always used the word “purse” more frequently, but I’ve been living in TN the past couple years and now use “handbag” more. I used to use the term pocketbook – but haven’t in a while. Not sure why? Haven’t heard it used maybe? In vintage ads of the 1950s, seems “purses” were the small coin purses, and handbags were, well, held in the hand (or over shoulder) – also a clutch looking bag is sometimes called an “underarm bag” and in other places called a handbag. And I did see “pocketbook” used in an ad – it said the handbag was made in pocketbook willow calf (?) but trade magazines and associations refer to bags with straps as Handbags. (National Authority for the Ladies Handbag Industry) and it seems that a clutch is a type of handbag. Now I know.

  5. PontiacPeggy · 10/09/2012

    That is interesting about pocketbook. I use that occasionally when I mean “purse.” I rarely use “handbag” (which connotes EXPENSIVE to me). It seems awkward to me. I’m in my 60s from the Midwest if that matters. Most of the time I use purse.

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