Purses and sporrans

The word purse has an interesting history, I discovered today. It comes from the Old English word purs, from the Late Latin word bursa, which had a number of meanings of the centuries, including skin or leather; (money) bag; scrotum; exchange; and scholarship, allowance, and comes from the Greek word βύρσα (hide, leather).

bursa is also the root of bursar, bursary, purser and reimburse; and of words for purse in the Celtic languages: sparán (Irish) sporan (Scottish Gaelic), sporran (Manx), as well as the French word bourse (grant, purse, stock market, stock exchange), the Spanish word bolsa (bag, exchange, stock exchange, pocket, purse), and of similar words in quite a few other languages.

In British English purse usually refers to a small container used, mainly women, to keep their money, credit cards, etc in – British men generally carry their money in their pockets and/or in a wallet. What do Americans carry their money in?

In American English purse generally refers to a bag used to keep money, keys and other essentials in, especially by women – also known as a pocketbook (?). The British English equivalent the American purse is a handbag.

Sources: OED, Dictionary of Word Origins, Cambridge Dictionaries Online

5 thoughts on “Purses and sporrans

  1. Actually in American English, purse is ambiguous—it can either mean handbag or the smaller folding thing, analogous to the male wallet, which is kept inside the handbag. Pocketbook in unambiguously the smaller object.

  2. Macsen: there is, AFAIK, no such thing as a female scrotum 😉

    This topic does remind me, though, of reading somewhere many years ago about the French deputy head teacher, responsible amongst other things, for the payment of grants to pupils, who was sacked for taking altogether too great an interest in examining “les bourses des élèves”.

  3. In (British) English it’s true that women keep their purses in their handbags and men keep their wallets in their pockets.
    Handbag is generally calqued in most languages.
    Welsh – bag llaw
    Breton – sac’h-dorn (W. dwrn ‘fist’)
    French – sac à main
    Irish – mála láimhe
    Scots. – màileid-làimh
    but Cornish has tigenn?

    Wallet or billfold (Canada, US) is (g)waled in Welsh, in Breton – doug-bihedoù, Irish – vallait, tiachóg. But there is also along side pwrs in Welsh ‘purse’ (Breton – yalc’h) probably an older word ysgrepan the same as English ‘scrip’ a small bag used for carrying money, food etc. usually made from a small scrap of material, cloth, leather (Icelandic – skreppa. Swedish – skräppa)

  4. I am from the Southeast United States and both purse and pocketbook can be the same thing: a handbag. I am in my twenties, but I find that my parents generation and older are the ones that really use pocketbook when referring to a handbag.

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