Words in the News


Liz Potter
Written by Liz Potter

The jaw-dropping news that a second-hand Hermes Birkin handbag sold for £162,500 in London this week has a few interesting aspects. The bag, which is embellished with an 18-carat white gold diamond-encrusted lock, fetched more than its upper reserve price, but fell far short of the highest price ever obtained for a bag, which was a cool quarter of a million paid for another Hermes Birkin in Hong Kong in 2017. In some areas of this country the bag could be traded for a new three-bedroom house, whereas in many other parts you would struggle to find a studio flat for that amount.

Setting aside the foibles of contemporary capitalism, let’s focus on the word handbag. In British English it refers to a small bag used by women to carry personal items; the usual US term is ‘purse’. Handbag is also a verb which refers to an assault with a handbag or, by extension, a ruthless verbal attack that leaves no room for defence or reply. The figurative sense, also found in the form of the noun handbagging, is commonly associated with Margaret Thatcher and was first used in reference to her famously combative style in 1982.

Handbag also has a humorous use, mainly in British English, in reference to a physical confrontation that stops short of serious fighting. In this case it is used in the plural, often in phrases such as ‘handbags at dawn’ or ‘handbags at ten paces’, a reference to the obsolete practice of duelling.

The most famous handbag in literature is probably the one in which the infant Jack Worthing was left at Victoria Station by his absent-minded nurse in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. This is a nice illustration of how words change their meanings, because what Wilde had in mind was something considerably larger than a lady’s handbag, something more like what we would call an overnight or weekend bag.

Wilde’s meaning of handbag dates back to the mid 19th century, while the current core meaning dates from a couple of decades later. The verb dates from the middle of the 20th century and the other uses arose in the 1980s.

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Liz Potter

Liz Potter

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