Being Swedish but living in Kenya for many years I initially reacted when at the local market I was offered a paper bag (verbally) but given a plastic bag (physically).

This is always the case and was not a single incident.

I thought paper bag had become a common word for all kinds of bags in Kenya but it seems like this is also common in other English speaking countries?

Can anyone confirm and maybe add a bit of history to explain?

For reference:



Edit: A US citizen living in Kenya has made the observation as well and claims it to be British English. http://chattynicol.wordpress.com/2011/01/10/fun-facts-about-kenya/

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    You weren't, by any chance, buying paper, were you? – Jay Jan 25 '11 at 12:47
  • It is every time I buy something. In the supermarket or at the local market. Not a single incident :) – sunn0 Jan 25 '11 at 13:12
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    I have been told that in the sixties you would get everything wrapped in old newspapers (shipped from Denmark - Maersk) but I doubt it was called a bag. – sunn0 Jan 25 '11 at 14:17
  • In Canada we maintain a distinction between the two kinds of bags. A decade or two ago it was common to be asked what kind you wanted at the grocery store, before stores eventually switched to all-plastic. (Now some places charge a fee for the plastic bags and thus specifically offer paper bags). – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Jan 25 '11 at 18:45
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    @Brian Hooper - Any type of bag as long as it's opaque! – Robb Apr 8 '11 at 13:30

I have lived in various cities throughout the US, and I have never heard anyone use "paper bag" to refer to all types of bags when shopping. If I went to the supermarket and asked for a paper bag and were given a plastic bag (or vice versa), I would assume that the person was not paying attention to what I was saying.

This type of extension or generalization of the semantic domain is not unheard of, of course. For example, I can call any chalkboard a blackboard, regardless of its color.

However, I have seen no evidence of anything like this in regards to paper bags. It seems to me that this would be a difficult transition, as there is usually a need to distinguish between the two, and plastic bags are the more common option (i.e. if paper bags are available somewhere, then plastic bags are almost certain to be there too, but not the other way around).

Edit: It might also be worth adding that this could be a feature of the dialect of English in Kenya. Most Kenyans speak both English and Swahili, if not another local language. It is possible that the Swahili word for "paper bag" is also the general word for bag in Swahili, which caused this term to be used in their dialect of English as well. I am only speculating about this particular case, but this sort of thing certainly does happen in bilingual communities.

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    It appears that the Swahili word is mfuko (plural mifuko), which seems to refer to any type of bag, including handbags, and even pockets. At least that's the impression I get after spending a few minutes on the English, French, and Polish Wiktionaries, Google, and Google Images. I might be awfully wrong. – RegDwigнt Jan 26 '11 at 11:54
  • Kiswahili borrows a lot from English and Paper bag would usually be used as in Kenyan English. As you noted words in Kiswahili often have a broad meaning - nakwenda for example can mean to move in any way, walking, riding, driving. When a more specific meaning is required an English word can be used. – sunn0 Jan 26 '11 at 13:17
  • I will go for the mfuko translation and assume that when bags were first introduced in East Africa they were paper bags and then when plastic arrived the word never changed as mfuko means both. Not sure about this though - will talk to more Kenyans about it. – sunn0 Apr 8 '11 at 11:37
  • +1: The observation about chalkboard vs. blackboard is right on. Although I have never seen a whiteboard that was not originally white, I imagine someone sells them in other light colors. Also, blueprints are almost never done on that funky blue paper anymore. – oosterwal Apr 8 '11 at 14:43

In the UK a paper bag is unambiguously† a bag made of paper. In supermarkets, shoppers and sales assistants usually refer to carrier bags or just bags. The ones provided free are usually made of plastic.

The home decorating trade sell wallpaper, sometimes this is not made of paper. For example: vinyl wallpaper. You can see that the word paper is not solely associated with thin sheets of dried crushed wood-pulp but can be used with similarly thin continuous sheets of material that gradually replaces, or supplements, traditional paper.

Sometimes it can mean a bag, constructed of any material, used by newspaper deliverers to carry newspapers


I Australia, a bag given at the checkout is referred to simply as a "bag" regardless of the type of material it is made of. The only time someone would go to the effort to specify that it was paper would be if they were trying to make some sort of environmental point. Here, "paper bag" definitely only refers to bags made of paper.


i think paper bad would generally imply a bag made of paper. But the answer could be different based on geography

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    This is what I am trying to figure out :) How about UK, US and/ or Malaysia? – sunn0 Jan 25 '11 at 13:45
  • Here in the US you would be asked "paper or plastic?" and you would then receive the appropriate bag. I've never heard of a plastic bag being called a "paper bag" before. – Brian Knoblauch Jan 25 '11 at 14:17
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    where i live (Malaysia) they just say "Plastic" not even "plastic bag" – Jinah Adam Jan 25 '11 at 14:19
  • @Brian Seems like this is actually a part of Kenyan English. If I remember correctly also in Tanzania. Wonder if it is in East African English or all English speaking countries in Africa. – sunn0 Jan 25 '11 at 14:25

Thank you for all the replies, none complete though.

Starting with where I should have searched first; dictionaries.

Almost all on-line dictionaries define paper bag as:

A bag made of paper or plastic for holding customer's purchases

This is most likely because of history:

The first recorded historical reference to grocery paper bags was made in 1630. The use of paper sacks only really started to take off during the Industrial Revolution: between 1700 and 1800.


Paper bags have been around for a long time. When plastic bags replaced paper bags the name stayed. Some English speaking countries adopted the correct word and some kept the old one.

I think that the fact that dictionaries still consider paper bag to mean both paper and plastic shows that it is valid to call a plastic bag a paper bag although it being more common in countries which have had less development of its language since the invention of the plastic bag.

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    The three online dictionaries I checked all had the exact same definition. As in, word for word. The source is credited to WordNet and they appear to write their own definitions. I checked a local dictionary and the definition was "a small bag made of paper." Wikipedia defines it as "a preformed container made of paper." I am calling bunk on the online dictionaries with two opposing references and the backup of every other answer here. WordNet got it wrong: Paper bag refers to a paper bag. – MrHen Apr 6 '11 at 22:10
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    I have to agree with @MrHen: I've never heard "paper bag" used for a plastic bag, though I've heard a number of other terms for them. Your derivation simply doesn't hold water. – user1579 Apr 6 '11 at 23:15
  • Thanks, should have checked better. Opening the question again and hoping for a better answer relevant to Africa. Someone at Wordnet must have a reason for the definition though. – sunn0 Apr 7 '11 at 5:24
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    @sunn0: I'm English, I thoroughly endorse what both Kos and RGB said. – user1579 Apr 7 '11 at 22:53
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    As I noted in the meta thread about WordNet, I'm not sure WordNet is defining paper bag specifically; and the reason the other dictionaries have identical definitions is because they all import it from WordNet. The dictionaries that don't import from WordNet don't define this phrase, because its meaning is easily deduced from its components. – Marthaª Apr 8 '11 at 0:10

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