It's not a book, and it doesn't fit in anyone's pocket. Why does my brother-in-law insist on calling his wife's purse a pocketbook?

I'm interested in the etymology, and in the chronological and geographical distribution of this expression. My sister & I (raised in southern California, can't get used to such an obvious misnomer) vs. bro-in-law (raised in New England, doesn't understand why we're bothered) are only one data point, and only on the geographical scale.

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    In the UK, not only would she not have a pocketbook, but her purse, if she had one, would be a small container for money and maybe cards, but little else, that went into her handbag
    – Colin Fine
    Jan 18, 2011 at 17:15
  • 'Insist'? Well, it might be weird if he's the only one who does it, but it's pretty natural for many people to say it (at least in Southern AmE). Even to the extent that it is often pronounced 'pocky-book'
    – Mitch
    Apr 20, 2011 at 16:24
  • A pocket book isn't a woman's purse only.
    – Thursagen
    May 17, 2011 at 8:19
  • Perhaps his statement is delivered jokingly? Similar to his wife calling the wallet he keeps in his pocket, a purse. She may say something like — "Get your purse honey, we're going shopping!"
    – Muse
    May 30, 2011 at 19:07
  • @Muse Why do some people call a billfold a wallet, eh?
    – tchrist
    Apr 29, 2012 at 20:02

7 Answers 7


From a blog entry at Separated by a Common Language, I learned that Luanne von Schneidemesser wrote about the word purse and its synonyms in a 1980 piece for American Speech. The article is dated, but addresses part of your question directly.

Her etymology of pocketbook mirrors answers given here already:

Pocketbook was originally just that: a small book that could be carried in the pocket. The OED shows that by 1685 it was understood also to be a "book for notes, memoranda, etc., intended to be carried in the pocket; a notebook; also, a book-like case of leather or the like, having compartments for papers, bank-notes, bills, etc." In the last meaning the DAE attests its use in the United States since 1816.

She then analyzes responses given from a 1000-person sample of Americans to the question, "What do you keep money in when you carry it around with you?", posed in a survey done for the Dictionary of American Regional English.

After a discussion of the distribution of wallet and billfold, she addresses purse, pocketbook, and handbag:

Purse, pocketbook, and handbag are all standard terms reported from all parts of the country. Yet purse, according to DARE's 569 responses, is not quite as frequent in the Northeast and coastal Atlantic states as it is to the west of those areas. In the eastern areas, pocketbook (395 responses) appears about as often as purse; but farther west, it becomes sparser. Both purse and pocketbook are distributed by age, community type, race, and education in correspondence with the total DARE sample.

This last point seems to rule out any significant generational differences among pocketbook respondents—30 years ago, that is.

Schneidemesser cites two other surveys in her piece. In one done for the Linguistic Atlas of New England, she notes a size distinction between purse and pocketbook with the former being considered a "small pouch or similar container for coins or other money," and the latter a "larger receptacle used to contain paper money as well as other articles," including a purse. In the second, for Elizabeth Bright's Word Geography of California and Nevada, she shows only 16 percent of respondents used the term pocketbook.

Purse and Its Synonyms, American Speech, Vol. 55, No. 1 [Spring, 1980], pp. 74-76

Edit 3/4/11:

An informal survey of five female family members (lifelong New Englanders) shows there may be some generational shift after all:

great-grandmother: pocketbook (reportedly)
grandmother: pocketbook/bag
mother: pocketbook/purse
sister: purse
niece: purse


1610s, originally a small book meant to be carried in one’s pocket, from pocket + book. Meaning “a booklike leather folder for papers, bills, etc.” is from 1722. Meaning "a woman's purse" is from 1816.

"Pocketbook didn’t come into use until the 1600s, but almost as soon as it did, it was used to mean, among other things, “wallet,” or “money holder”—pretty much what purse originally meant, though by this point purse had acquired additional, general- purpose senses. The OED’s earliest citation for purse as something that would tend to belong to a woman, however, is dated 1955; its citations for pocketbook in this sense date back to 1830. Perhaps you should remind your wife that she doesn’t need a pocket to have pocket money nor a suit to pack a suitcase. Pocketbook is in the same, um, bag. It’s a perfectly good word—maybe even a better word for her than handbag if she, like me, slings the thing over her shoulder." – Barbara Wallraff

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    I don't think pocket money or suitcase are at all analogous. I might not actually put my pocket money in my pocket, but I could if I wanted to. Ditto with my suitcase: if I really wanted to, I could certainly fill it with suits. Pocketbook, on the other hand, cannot accurately (or even possibly) describe any purse or handbag I have ever met.
    – Marthaª
    Jan 18, 2011 at 0:14
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    I thought a pocketbook is the small wallet you use to store your money and credit cards, and that it goes inside your purse or handbag and isn't the purse or handbag itself.
    – Tragicomic
    Jan 18, 2011 at 7:13
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    @Tragicomic, that would be the logical usage, but New Englanders (and possibly others, although none of the answers so far have addressed that question) specifically use the term to mean the purse or handbag itself - they will happily talk of putting their wallet in their pocketbook, and other such topological impossibilities.
    – Marthaª
    Jan 18, 2011 at 14:59
  • @Marthaª, Putting a wallet in a pocketbook isn't a topological impossibility, merely a geometric impossibility. Topology is "stretchable" geometry, and a stretchable pocketbook could indeed contain a squashable wallet. :)
    – Max
    Mar 18, 2014 at 9:11

It was originally (early 17th century) literally a small note book that you would carry in your pocket; from this it, moved fairly quickly (late 17th century) to describing a sort of early wallet: ‘A pocket-sized folding case for holding banknotes, papers, etc.’. [I’d always assumed that this transition went via a sense of being a book for noting financial transactions; but if this is the case, it’s not documented by the OED, Etymonline, or anywhere else I can find.] From there it went to being any sort of wallet or purse; from there, it evolved (19th century; roughly in parallel with US usage of purse) to describe in particular a small women’s handbag. This seems to be the point at which it became largely a US word, and died out in the UK.

There’s a memorable episode of a lost pocketbook in one of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s ‘Little House on the Prairie’ series — I can’t remember which one…

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    Farmer Boy Apr 20, 2011 at 14:08
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    Interestingly, in Farmer Boy the pocketbook in question belonged to a man. The episode takes place in the 1860s while the book was published in 1933. Jun 16, 2012 at 16:12

All I know is this, which is not very much:

1610s, originally a small book meant to be carried in one’s pocket, from pocket + book. Meaning “a booklike leather folder for papers, bills, etc.” is from 1722. Meaning "a woman's purse" is from 1816.

Source: http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=pocketbook

An extremely speculative hypothesis about its origin: perhaps "book" was misheard as "bag", or "book" was pronounced much like "bag" in some 1800s dialect or accent, leading to this odd usage of "pocketbook". Then again, it might as well be ordinary metonymy, where head and modifier are reversed: *bookpocket would be a perfectly logical word that made sense, if it existed.


Such a characterization from California—linguistic land's end—melting pot of southern drawl and northern twang—domain of golden misnomers and mangled metaphors—is instructive, but do not dismay.

For much of the previous century, a pocketbook/pocket book was a kind of wallet that could be folded and generally snapped shut, then deposited—i.e., nested—inside a purse. Inside were kept frequently used things of value such as coins and bills (hence the connection with money) and personal identification; plus whatever small flat items (charge cards, as they were then called) which were desired not to float around inside the purse (not bag).

The pocket book, or the book pocket, was a kind of “safe pocket” that could exist apart from any pant, vest, or coat; or even from the purse or pocket where it normally resided. It was as if the word for a close-able wallet had an interior and exterior meaning: inward pocket for retention and retrieval of quick cash; outward appearance of a locking, or at least closable, book.

In those days, people quite often also carried a savings account deposit-withdrawal register, called a passbook, which could fit in a pocketbook. (Are you seeing the picture... of having money, ID, coin and bill, and coin & bill receptacle all in one place at a bank counter...?)

The term, pocketbook, was so ubiquitous it came to have a broader meaning, mostly associated with the carrying of money in general, be it in a purse or in a pocket (as in, within a man's wallet). So the term came to be used in either instance: a woman's or a man's purse or pocket-borne receptacle, respectively, for carrying money. It also came to be used not only for the concealed "book," but also for the containing purse as well. In short, one's pocket book became synonymous with ones carry-around money itself.

Not surprising, then, that pocketbook could also come to represent, almost euphemistically, the very thing it is purposed to accommodate: money. In the introductory question, there is meaning between the lines that, with Teutonic paucity of words, alludes to a Germany so rich from the postwar re-emergence of its pre-war industrial might, that by comparison with neighboring Euro Community countries, it can be thought of in terms of guiltily subsidizing (and not nationalistically destroying) Europe from an economic wealth building capacity so large as to suggest that the cohesion of Europe depends on only the relatively small proportion of treasure "carried about" (as if) in that nation's cache of loose change: its pocket book. In other words, the allusion to the German pocketbook is a way of saying the country's underlying wealth producing capacity is far greater still.

Interestingly enough (back here in the States), the beginning of the end of "pocketbook" universality happened at about the same time as women's pant's zippers moved from the back to the front - pockets and wallets in; purses and pocketbooks out.

Suffice it to say, pocketbook, is also a short hand way of talking about yours or another person's money on hand without using the word money. Accordingly, there was similarly a measure of status in the use of or speaking about pocketbooks, as opposed to merely carrying/jangling money loosely, or in a wallet, in the pocket or in the purse. Billfolds were blue collar; pocketbooks white collar.

Californian or not, you can take some comfort in the knowledge that there was a time when your bewilderment about misnomers was shared by all curious-minded persons in the passage into adulthood. By the measure of at least one, children in numbers must have wondered about that mysterious thing their parents called a pocketbook, without ever seeing a book going into or coming out of pocket.


Americans are the most notorious corruptors of the English language. Perhaps we did this early on just to be part of our defiance to the Crown. We say things and refer to things in an "Americanized" way with usually no thought whatsoever to etymology or respect for traditional English usage, or even seem to care why we call things what we do.

Calling a purse or a handbag a "pocketbook" is an example of this. The women I posed this query to laughed, thought it was a good joke, and then they accused me of being a stupid and simple-minded man. If I were to present them with research and facts tomorrow, it would become an even greater opportunity for laughter.

It makes sense in a nonsensical way. Since "pocketbook" was already in usage and was something people were familiar with, then why take the risk of making-up another term to more correctly identify what you were talking about? Call it a pocketbook and people have an idea of what you're talking about without having to go through the trouble and time of making an explanation to those who would accuse you of being vague or ridiculous.

  • Harry, I removed the signature at the bottom of your answer, as they are not allowed here. Please see the FAQ for more info.
    – user11550
    Jan 6, 2012 at 23:23
  • This sadly doesn't really address the question. Sep 30, 2015 at 23:56

The term "pocket-book" in recent times have been defined to mean a woman's purse. However, this definition is unprecedented. The word has been used just to refer to something that holds money, checks, and bills, and notes, as well as being a diary.

Originally from the 1610s, a small book meant to be carried in one’s pocket, from pocket + book. Meaning “a booklike leather folder for papers, bills, etc.” is from 1722.

A pocket-book does not refer to a woman's purse only. Dickens in his book Great Expectations referred to men using pocketbooks as well. He also referred to men using pocket-books in A Tale of Two Cities.

Not only is the use of pocket-books by men recorded in fiction only, but also historical accounts, in which a story was told about the author Jules Verne(1828-1905) searching his pocketbook.

The definition for a pocketbook as a woman's purse is unascertained.

  • The items that men used to use known as pocket books share almost nothing with a woman's handbag.
    – Marcin
    May 17, 2011 at 11:16
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    You're refuting a false premise: nobody said pocketbook only means a woman's handbag.
    – Marthaª
    May 17, 2011 at 16:24
  • Then why did people keep on definint it as a woman's purse?
    – Thursagen
    May 17, 2011 at 22:37
  • Because that's the meaning that I object to.
    – Marthaª
    May 26, 2011 at 18:40
  • Therefore, I just proved it isn't!!!!:):)
    – Thursagen
    May 26, 2011 at 22:01

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