Difference between a bag and a purse?
May 24, 2008 8:06 PM   Subscribe

What is the difference between a purse and a bag?

It is 11 PM on Friday and I need to know this. My friend has a bag which I say is a purse. When I saw it I thought at first it was some girl's purse. Men can carry purses, and purses are subsets of bags, but let's have a logical definition.

My theory is that a purse is accessed while being carried/worn, while backpacks and messenger bags, for example, are generally removed before opening.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim to Grab Bag (29 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
The difference is the Atlantic. In the UK, we call a woman's hand-held bag a bag (or a handbag). In the USA, it is called a purse. In the UK, we use the term purse for a small wallet or bag that holds coins (and sometimes notes). So the difference is size. I have heard men's bags-to-be-carried referred to as handbags in the UK.
In your case, if you are in the USA, the term purse appears to be used exclusively for women's bags. So if your friend is male, it probably qualifies as a bag ... if you want to have some fun with him, you could call it a handbag ... :-)
posted by Susurration at 8:19 PM on May 24, 2008

I always take off my purse before accessing it, usually because it's got a short strap and I can't physically access it while it stuck under my armpit. But when I carry a messenger bag, I usually don't take it off, instead I just rotate it so it's in the front, and dig through it.

I think purse, bag, handbag, and pocketbook are all basically interchangeable, at least in the US. I think my friend in the UK refers to her wallet as a purse, though.
posted by cabingirl at 8:24 PM on May 24, 2008

For women, "purse" and "bag" are pretty much interchangeable terms. But for men, a bag (even a purse-like bag) is a bag.
posted by amyms at 8:24 PM on May 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A purse is a specialized kind of bag. As far as I can tell, purses are carried in one hand or under the arm, never across the chest, and they typically close with a top zipper, not a flap. So you have messenger bags and tote bags, neither of which is a purse.

Your theory doesn't work for me because 1. Women often set their purses down before opening, since it's hard to open the zipper while you're holding the purse, and 2. Messenger bags are totally easy to open while wearing, just lift up the flap.

It would be great if you could do some kind of MS Paint sketch of this alleged purse.

(BTW, you can also refer to a purse as a bag, because that's what it is, but that doesn't help you here.)
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:29 PM on May 24, 2008

Well, the original meaning of purse was a bag for holding money. AFAICT, once words start evolving like this one has, there really isn't that much logic to it. I don't think you're going to come up with any definition that's based only on describing the object itself which is going to include all purses and exclude all non-purses.
posted by winston at 8:39 PM on May 24, 2008

I think the term purse probably originated kind of as it is still used in the UK - a small bag used to carry money. In horse races the money won is referred to as a purse. It has evolved, at least in my frame of reference, as a small to medium sized bag that a woman carries her money and other necessaries in. A bag is usually larger and used to carry things that are maybe necessary for a trip but not necessary all the time. Like you use a bag to carry your computer, books, clothes, papers.. things don't want all the time but need to be carried at a certain time. A purse carries what you would bring with you no matter where you were going.
I guess it isn't so much what it looks like but what you use it for? All purses are bags but not all bags are purses... wow the word purse sounds really weird to my brain right now.
posted by fogonlittlecatfeet at 8:40 PM on May 24, 2008

Best answer: In the US, purses are women-only. "Man purse" exists because of that fact to bridge the gap, but that's mostly derision. The only time you'll see a man carrying a purse is when he is carrying something designed with the intent of being a women's purse. In the subset of women's bags, a purse is going to be a one-shoulder-slung bag, or held in the hand.
posted by soma lkzx at 8:44 PM on May 24, 2008

"Purse" is what obnoxious people call bags carried by men. To be obnoxious.

As a data point, when I use my messenger bag, I often access it while still on. If I'm carrying a large tote, however, I'm apt to put it down to get the goods.

I am a dude.
posted by wemayfreeze at 8:50 PM on May 24, 2008

if you want to have some fun with him, you could call it a handbag

a handbag?

Linguistically, I think it's related to the closure and means of access.

You know the 'purses of gold' that Robin Hood nabs? Basically a bag or pouch with a drawstring or a simple tie to close? (You've got 'pursed lips' too, which seems to have a metaphorical link to the closed purse.) That top-closure -- you dip into it -- marks out both the British purse and the American one, even though they're different sizes and have different functions.
posted by holgate at 8:55 PM on May 24, 2008

This is one Australian position on purses and wallets.
posted by b33j at 9:37 PM on May 24, 2008

Best answer: I think the dividing line is styling, not how you access the bag or purse. Any bag that seems overtly feminine, colourful, dinky or cutesy can be called a purse, and most men wouldn't dare carry one. The more that a bag resembles a messenger bag, a briefcase, a backpack or a camera bag, the more unisex or masculine it appears.

MEC here in Canada sells a variety of bags that both men and women use. This shoulder bag can be accessed without taking it off, but it isn't overtly feminine, either.
posted by maudlin at 10:01 PM on May 24, 2008

Ha! I just noticed one of the reviews of that MEC bag: "The perfect man-purse".
posted by maudlin at 10:04 PM on May 24, 2008

I wonder if "bag" and "handbag" are just becoming more popular terms and "purse" is falling out of favor. I seem to remember shifting from using "purse" to "bag" when I started to view them more as interesting and cute accessories, instead of the thing I carried my wallet and keys in. (For example, Kate Spade and 1154 Lill, my two favorite brands for several years, both refer to them as "handbags." Ditto Coach. Louis Vuitton seems to favor the phrase "city bags." I suppose I picked up on the semantics directly from the manufacturers.)

Possibly as a result, I associate the word "purse" with a subset of women's bags: over one shoulder, structured, smaller than a breadbasket, usually that pursey rounded trapezoid shape, a definite zip or snap closure. Possibly something in which you'd find floral-print pillboxes and lipsticks in faux-gold cases.

My mom calls her bag a purse, but she also says "billfold" and "cream rinse."
posted by Metroid Baby at 10:09 PM on May 24, 2008

Best answer: Purse is what some women call the bag that they carry. Also, see handbag. The bag that a man might carry is not called a purse, because that term refers to a woman's bag. How the bag is accessed makes no difference to the definition.

I'm a girl. I carry a bag, not a purse, because the bag is a unisex messenger bag.
posted by desuetude at 10:34 PM on May 24, 2008

i always carry my messenger bag. i often refer to it as my "man-purse" it usually contains a full set of tools and at least one knife. so i think its funny to just call it a purse.
posted by swbarrett at 10:53 PM on May 24, 2008

Best answer: Purses close—as in "pursed lips"—while bags may or may not have this feature.
posted by dogrose at 11:09 PM on May 24, 2008

I have a bag that is a BAG. I can fit my laptop and a few books, a full set of gym clothes and a towel, bike gear and lunch, or a twelve pack of beer in the thing. It was sold as a men's carry-on bag/business case and nobody would bat an eye if a man were to carry it. IT IS A BAG. NOT A PURSE. I have gotten into numerous arguments about the nature of my BAG. There is no reason to call it a purse except that a woman is carrying it, rather than the man it was made for.

But hey, if you'll let me take it on the plane without counting it as a carry-on, then yes, Mister Airline Security Man, I guess it is a purse.

At any rate, to my mind it's a matter of styling, but some people apparently just think woman: purse:: man: bag, regardless of the shape of the vessel.

If he likes it and it carries his stuff, give him some Hell but let him be. at least it's not a fanny pack.
posted by louche mustachio at 4:22 AM on May 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

It's about style and gender: bag is the overall category and a more utilitarian category, for instance a messenger bag. I might call my purse a bag, but I'd never call my bag a purse. A purse specifies it as stylish and female. It also indicates a special kind of use-- this is what I carry my wallet, keys and make up in (because my clothes don't have adequate pockets). I can use my "bag" for those things too, but the purse is for that use specifically.

This is harder to describe than you'd think! It's like pornography-- I can't tell you what a purse is, but I know one when I see one.

Just to confuse the issue, growing up in Philadelphia, we called a purse a "pocketbook." When I moved to the Midwest, no one knew what I was talking about.
posted by nax at 6:34 AM on May 25, 2008

Best answer: Does he carry his money in it? If so, it's a purse, or at least filling the role of one. If he keeps a separate wallet on him, it's a bag.
posted by blue_beetle at 8:08 AM on May 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

I agree with blue_beetle - through all the language lessons above, it seems purses are for money. If he keeps his wallet in his pocket, it's a bag. I carry a purse, even if it's a tote bag or a messenger bag (as defined by the grumpy men at the border or on planes - my bag is a purse, and thus doesn't count as a carry-on). My boyfriend carries/wears a bag - his wallet's always in his pocket.
posted by Herman Hermanson at 8:34 AM on May 25, 2008

I'm a woman. I often carry what I refer to as a purse, and what other people would refer to as a purse. My wallet is in my pocket. Where I choose to put my wallet doesn't affect purse-ness, imo, otherwise, my bag would be a purse when I'm wearing pocketless clothes and a bag when I'm not. How does that make sense?
posted by Salamandrous at 9:10 AM on May 25, 2008

My husband and his father both refer to my purse as a "pocketbook" (they're from Georgia). I'd certainly heard the word before (especially in old movies), but I've always called my bag a purse.

When Jerry on The Bob Newhart Show arrived at the office with a brown leather bag he referred to it as a "shoulder satchel," so there's one more descriptor to add to the mix. (Although Carol pulled an identical bag out from under her desk and told him "Mine's a purse.")
posted by Oriole Adams at 9:13 AM on May 25, 2008

A purse (American) is a replacement for pockets. Therefore a bag is a purse if it contains a majority of the following:
  • Wallet
  • Keys
  • Cell Phone
  • Keys
  • Loose change
Gender of the carrier is irrelevant, as is size, construction, etc.
posted by Ookseer at 12:22 PM on May 25, 2008

FWIW, a handbag is carried by hand.

A purse could be anything from a big messenger bag with a shoulder strap to a clutch or pocketbook, which could be held in hand or kept inside a bigger purse.

A bag is definitely a purse if it:
- contains makeup and/or feminine hygiene products
- is any shape other than rectangular
- is "dainty" or "pretty" or has a Hello Kitty on it
- was made by a company that exclusively manufactures women's purses
- is approximately ten inches by six inches and has a strap that is of a length such that the bag rests under the upper arm
posted by Sys Rq at 1:49 PM on May 25, 2008

Best answer: As far as I can tell, purses are carried in one hand or under the arm, never across the chest, and they typically close with a top zipper, not a flap.

You marked this as a best answer, but the definition doesn't hold.

I often carry my purse by running the stap across my chest. It doesn't fall off my shoulder that way. It closes with a flap and a buckle. This purse is just a little to small to hold a paperback book. A man might possibly carry it if he was also wearing a utilikilt or SCA garb, but otherwise it would probably stand out as being a purse carried by a man, and look out of place.
posted by yohko at 3:25 PM on May 25, 2008

I carry a Healthy Back Bag every day, and when I refer to it, I call it my purse. I just showed it to my husband and asked,"What's this?" and he said, "It's your purse." (I'm female, 50s, and live in the Midwest.)
posted by Joleta at 9:12 PM on May 25, 2008

My mother called her purse a 'pocketbook'.

Decades ago I bought my first (cassette) Walkman. I then sought and found a very neutral black leather bag in which to carry it. For fun, I pulled it out in the office, waved it around and proclaimed "I got a new purse!". (yes, I was being campy. As a big, tall, handsome man, this is rather comical...at least in context of the 80's)

An intern was working there that summer. He was uncomfortable with my having a 'purse'. I explained it was just for my Walkman. But he carefully asked whether I had bought it from a purse store, as a purse. "No", I explained, "I bought it from a Walkman bag store, as a Walkman bag".

These days, I am rarely to be seen out without a bag, largely because I hate going out without a camera, and something to read.
posted by Goofyy at 8:33 AM on May 26, 2008

In the UK, we use the term purse for a small wallet or bag that holds coins

In the U.S., this is called a "coin purse" and can be placed in a handbag/purse (or, if you are an old man, in your pocket, to be brought forth to slowly count out exact change while everyone behind you in line at the store stews impatiently).
posted by kittyprecious at 8:26 AM on May 27, 2008

I'm amazed no one has mentioned the 'manbag', as in a male handbag. In the UK, the term dates to the 1990s, I think, which probably coincides with men starting to carry shitloads of gadgets around with them (mobiles, PDAs, &c.), and therefore needing a bag when previously pockets were plenty. They're now sufficiently de rigeur for The Guardian run a feature asking various celebrities 'What's in your manbag?'. Though only the fashion crowd sport handbag-style manbags.

In Europe, of course, men have long carried those dinky little purses with a hand strap. Only very well dressed middle aged men from France and Italy can really carry this off without looking a bit daft.
posted by jack_mo at 4:27 AM on June 1, 2008

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