My wife and I enjoy the occasional “200 Years Ago” feature in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, and the other day they had one about a reward being offered for the return of a lost indispensable. She read it to me and asked what an “indispensable” might be, so I turned to my trusty OED, where I found this sense (the entry, still unrevised, is from 1900):

A kind of small satchel or bag worn by women instead of a pocket. (French indispensable, Littré.) See Notes & Queries 9th Ser. IV. 310. Obsolete.
1800 Gillray Print 12 Feb. (repr. scene French Milliner’s) A number of disputes having arisen in the Beau Monde, respecting the exact situation of ladies Indispensibles (or New Invented Pockets).
1806 C. K. Sharpe Corr. (1888) I. 265 Rows of pretty peeresses, who sat eating sandwiches from silk indispensables [at Lord Melville’s trial].

That Sharpe citation is from a very lively description of the 1806 trial of Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville, for misappropriation of public money:

You would have laughed, had you seen the ridiculous care with which his (Whitbread’s) friends gave him sips of wine and water to wet his whistle, and clouts for his mouth and nose. I thought his speech very clever but in a miserable bad taste, and so abusive that Lord Melville smiled very frequently. That monster Fox was there, his sallow cheeks hanging down to his paunch, and his scowling eyes turned sometimes upon Mr Whitbread, sometimes on the rows of pretty peeresses who sat eating sandwiches from silk indispensables, and putting themselves into proper attitudes to astonish the representatives of the Commons of England, occupying the opposite benches.

I was a bit surprised by “wet his whistle,” but I soon discovered it goes back way beyond 1806, indeed back to Chaucer’s day: “So was hir ioly whistle wel ywet” (Reeve’s Tale, l. 235).


  1. AJP Crown says

    No Whitbreads for 65 years, and then two come within the space of a week.

  2. I just spent a blank few minutes trying to remember the OTHER word I used to know for that sort of early-1800s thing… I think it was “reticule”.

  3. Yes, reticule, obviously from French and indispensable is probably a calque of nécessaire.

  4. If you were calquing nécessaire, why wouldn’t you use necessary?

  5. Notes & Queries 9th Ser. IV. 310:

    “Indispensable” (9th S. iv. 247). — An “indispensable” was a small bag provided with a long string in which the ladies, at the beginning of this century, put their money, spectacles, handkerchief, and snuff-box when they went out, and which they hung on the back of their chair when sitting down. Later on this “indispensable” became “sac,” and then “reticule or ” ridicule.” Littré, Larousse, Bescherelle, and ‘La Grande Encyclopédie’ give the above definition of the term. Moreover, you can find in Racinet’s ‘Costume Historique,’ vol. vi. plates 406 (figs. 3 and 13) and 407 (figs. 15 and 20), several coloured reproductions of these receptacles.
    Henri Chateau.

  6. @Kieth Ivey: At that date, necessary may already have been a euphemism for “toilet.”

  7. At that date, necessary may already have been a euphemism for “toilet.”

    In its function as a euphemism for “shitpot.”

  8. indispensable is probably a calque of nécessaire.

    The OED (quoted in the post) says it’s from French indispensable in the same sense.

  9. John Cowan says

    I understand necessary n. to be short for necessary-house ‘outdoor privy’.

  10. “In its function as a euphemism for “shitpot.””

    “Shit” seems to come from roots meaning “to separate” or “to cut off” — the equivalent of “droppings,” which is not at all offensive. Was “shit” itself once a euphemism for some other word meaning specifically “excrement”?

  11. Trond Engen says

    Funny enough: dirt << *dher- “defecate”. The two words ‘dirt’ and ‘shit’ (No. drite v. “defecate” , drit(t) n. “feces ; dirt (dysphemism)” and skite v. “defecate”, skit(t) n. “dirt; feces”) influenced eachother mutually, explaining their coincidence in form. I think they have been a phono-semantic pair for a long time, taking turns in a cycle of dys- and euphemism.

  12. John Cowan says

    So dirt and shit are (at least partly) semantically swapped between Enlgish and Norwegian. Cool. vicar:curate :: curé:vicaire.

  13. January First-of-May says

    semantically swapped

    I think my favorite example is час and година in Russian and Ukrainian – one of the words means “hour”, as in 60 minutes, and the other is a poetic word for “time”, but in Russian the former means “60 minutes”, and the latter is poetic, while in Ukrainian it’s exactly the opposite.
    (Of course, in Russian, the former word can also be used in the poetic meaning; I don’t know whether the latter can in Ukrainian.)

    In Yugoslavian, as it happens, година (or godina, depending on the dialect) means year, which probably confuses Ukrainian speakers a lot (and vice versa).

  14. David Marjanović says

    AFAIK, Ukrainian lines up with Polish here: czas “time”, godzina “hour”.

    Funny enough: dirt << *dher- “defecate”.

    I’m used to Mist meaning “trash”; “trash can” is Mistkübel, and Misthaufen covers cattle farmers’ dungheaps as well as a little compost heap in a garden. More literarily, Mist means “dung”, and I thought that was a euphemism. It took the Latin root cognate (mingere “to piss”) to convince me otherwise.

    Some whiskey producer once tried to sell Irish Mist in Germany. It did not go well.

  15. Curtis Booth says

    Out here in the Wild West, mountain men, lacking pockets in their buckskins and furs, used to carry what they called a ‘possibles’ bag, where possibles really meant items indispensible to survival, such as firemaking tools and hunting paraphernalia. Possibles is an unusual plural in English. Many of the early mountain men were French (see rendezvous and Cache Valley here in Utah for example), and I wonder if ‘possibles’ is a better plural in French than in English, and borrowed for its usefulness.

  16. David Marjanović says

    It is… in spelling. The singular and the plural are pronounced the same, and I’d be rather surprised if mountain men communicated in writing much.

  17. TLFi doesn’t give this sense of indispensable, but I won’t pick a fight with OED, thank you very much. I also admit that English seems to be reluctant to calque words and prefers borrowings.


    Above link claims that an electrician in Kentucky once mentioned a “severals bag”, but no one else on the entire internet seems to have ever referred to such a thing.

  19. Crawdad Tom says

    And there was Chaucer’s “bag of needments.”

  20. Now I understood where Kölsch Driss “shit” comes from.

  21. Stu Clayton says

    The verb being driessen or drissen, as in Die drießen doch all durch ein Fott (approx. “they stick together like thieves”, in a dismissive sense only)

  22. marie-lucie says

    Le nécessaire, etc, for carrying small useful objects :

    I may have seen and understood this word in some 19th century context, but I don’t remember having heard anyone actually say it unless they were reading aloud. L’indispensable? I don’t think I have ever run into it.

    Le réticule to me is an even smaller bag, especially one made of a metal mesh, often silver, apparently knitted. Unlike fabric, the metal could not be seriously damaged by other metal objects possibly contained in the bag (such as needles or scissors), which were also visible through the mesh. It seems to have been the kind of thing gifted to a young girl for her birthday or other special occasion, that she could use her whole life. My mother had one, which she kept as a souvenir but did not seem to use, that she must have inherited from a grandmother or other elderly female relative.

    To refer to an object of similar appearance and contemporary usage I think I would say une pochette.

  23. “Some whiskey producer once tried to sell Irish Mist in Germany. It did not go well.”

    That would have been before 1994, when the European Union opened its Office for Harmonization in the Internal Market (now known as the European Union Intellectual Property Office), which, among other functions, approves, rejects, or approves after changes any trademark proposed by businesses in any of the member countries of the Union.

    It has a staff of experts in the twenty-seven official languages of the Union, who look for any word, wording, or gesture in a proposed trademark that may for one reason or another be inappropriate in any of the languages (or, in the case of gestures, offensive in any of the speech communities).

    At least the German expert would have rejected “Irish Mist.”

    Unacceptability in one language or in one speech community automatically triggers prohibition of use anywhere in the Union, thus even where, as in Ireland, “Mist” would have been acceptable.

  24. Lars Mathiesen says

    So I guess the people producing the Fucking Hell beer didn’t care if they could take out a trade mark. It’s not on’s list of g.g.As either.

  25. Fucking Hell is an active EU trademark (serial number 006025159). Has been since 2007 so will have been valid in UK (and looks to have become a local trademark post-Brexit) and still valid in Ireland as a European mark.
    There is more than one Irish Mist EU trademark; one example is 004525473, filed 2005. So valid in DE and AT.
    So I think the prohibition of offensive marks doesn’t in practice rule out trademarks of this level of ‘bad language’.
    (I work for a company involved in trademark watching so know where to look these things up).

  26. Thanks, that makes sense, and it’s great to hear from somebody who actually knows this stuff.

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