Sac or Poche?

Or sachet or pochon? Or perhaps cornet or nylon? The French have many words for ‘plastic shopping bag,’ and you can see the geographical distribution at Arika Okrent’s Mental Floss post, along with a link to more such maps. Now I’m wondering what the Québecois say…


  1. In Quebec we say sac (or sac en plastique if you have to specify)

  2. David Marjanović says

    Surely there’s a size difference between sac and sachet?

  3. Bernard Show has allegedly said (and if not true, it’s too good to check) that French don’t care what you say if you pronounce it right. But even Bernard Show didn’t know that if French cannot agree on how to name a thing, they ban it.

  4. At least le sac de Rome is a settled matter. Le nylon de Rome would be something different.

  5. To me a sachet is not a plastic bag, but a small paper or plastic container for medicines as powders or e.g. spices or sauces in very small quantities which come with prepared foods. A sachet is very roughly about a finger-length long and maybe 2 to 3 wide.

  6. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    In Marseilles we say sac or sac en plastique (though those have largely disappeared — most supermarkets now have brown paper bags). I’ve never heard sachet (in this sense) or pochon (at all), nor cornet or nylon.

  7. My mother who is from Brittany (and is a semi-speaker of Breton) told me that when she came to Paris the first time, there was a communication problem precisely with this word, because nobody here understands what _pochon_ means.

  8. Rodger C says

    Drifting off a bit, this reminds me of the regional differences in American English between bag and sack. In the South a sack is bigger and usually of cloth, but in the North sack seems to do general service. Moving from West Virginia to Indiana, I used to have conversations like this:

    “Would you like a sack for that?”

    “No, a bag will be fine.”


    And then there’s poke. I once heard about an older relative in a similar situation who asked, “Would you give me a poke?”, whereupon the cashier looked at her with puzzlement and then jabbed her with her finger.

  9. J.W. Brewer says

    Here’s your graphical representation of the prevalence and geographical distribution of bag/sack/poke/other in AmEng (for “the paper container in which you might bring home items you bought at the store”): (I assume “other” includes, but is not limited to, the Pennsylvania-Dutchism “toot,” which is presumably related to the Hochdeutsch “Tüte.”)

  10. Rodger C says

    I must say I’m surprised not to see a sharper regional distinction between bag and sack, seeing that before leaving WV I’d never heard the latter in that meaning, and in IN and I think CA I recall hearing nothing else. Maybe my memory has simplified my experience.

  11. Well, the maps on Vaux’s site are notoriously unhelpful – better to click through to the state-level data. WV goes 84 to 9% for bag in the grocery store context; CA goes 94 to 4% for bag, and IN goes 72 to 25% for bag. So… I don’t really know what to make of that.

    (My state, MA, goes 98 to 1% for bag. For my part, I share your sense that a sack is a large cloth thing.)

    Edit: This is a wild guess, but were you around Bakersfield perhaps? Oklahoma goes 53 to 41% for sack, and the southern San Joaquin Valley maintains some Okie dialectal traits.

  12. And then there’s the string bag, which was common in Australia (half a century or more ago).

  13. Jim (another one) says

    “And then there’s poke. I once heard about an older relative in a similar situation who asked, “Would you give me a poke?”, whereupon the cashier looked at her with puzzlement and then jabbed her with her finger.”

    Poke. During WWII my grandparents were posted to Winston-Salem. I’m don’t remember but I think they’d never been out of California and this was their first overseas assignment and it was a continuing journey of discovery. There were still a lot of tobacco rich families there in those days and these white folks were very happy to see some white men show up to replace their own who had deployed and to even the numbers back up, and they were very open-handed in their hospitality, to the extent of turning houses over to quarter the officers’ families, including household staff.

    My grandmother got her milk and eggs delivered at the backdoor by a white farmer. One day he made his delivery and then stood around waiting. He was very deferential and would not come up onto the porch. My grandmother couldn’t make any sense out of what he was saying and finally the black housekeeper translated. “He’s saying ‘pokes is scarce’ (it was probably “skierce”, to add to the opacity) – he wants his bag back that he brought the eggs in.”

    My grandmother always thought it was ironic, but of course that housekeeper had had a lot of experience with code switching.

  14. first overseas assignment

    Not quite! North Carolina and California, despite the fantasies of some Spaniards, actually are on the same continent.

    My wife grew up from the age of two in Greensboro and Winston-Salem (High Point was not yet substantial enough to count as the third city). She tells me that she never knew anybody hick enough to say poke.

  15. Rodger C says

    @Lazar: No, I was near San Diego. Perhaps “Would you like a sack?” is a stereotyped term of art among cashiers? (It might have the advantage of obviating the things that can happen to the vowel in “bag” that could interfere with comprehension.)

  16. J.W. Brewer says

    It just struck me that the White Castle burger chain’s catch phrase “Buy ‘Em By the Sack” presumably sounds sufficiently idiomatic to its target audience to be effective, but of course the chain extends through multiple regions of the country and might cross isoglosses. Indeed the catch phrase might be especially effective for those whose default word for the object is “bag” precisely because they are likely to think of a “sack” as unusually large.

  17. first overseas assignment

    Not quite!

    I’m pretty sure that was a joke.

  18. Years of bitter experience has taught me that “do you need a bag for that?” – spoken fast and casually, and my obvious resulting incomprehension – will out me as a tourist in any of my tourist L2s. I hadn’t realised that included Amurcan.

  19. marie-lucie says

    En français: Very interesting map!

    I agree with Paul on le sachet, an old diminutive of le sac, which can be of any size or type, as in un sac de pommes de terre ‘a sack of potatoes’ or un sac à main ‘a handbag or un sac à ordures ‘a garbage bag’. I associate le sachet with something rather dainty, like a little cloth bag filled with dried lavender slipped between folded sheets in a linen closet. It is also used for a ‘tea bag’.

    A net bag is un filet ‘a net’. These shopping bags (used mostly for groceries) are very practical as they take little space when empty and carry a surprising amount of stuff.

    I have never heard of le pochon, obviously a derivative of la poche ‘pocket’ or pocket-like object (including under some people’s eyes). The word must have meant another pocket-like bag originally.

    As for le cornet, which has a minuscule distribution on the map, it is a diminutive of la corne ‘horn’ and refers to a piece of paper rolled into a cone (a cow horn is the opposite: it can be heated and unrolled flat in order to make objects such as (or mostly) hair combs). I am not sure if you can still buy un cornet de frites ‘a “horn” of fries’ from street vendors: “French” fries rolled up in a folded newspaper page. The word cornet as I know it is mostly used for an ice cream cone.

  20. marie-lucie says

    JWB: the Pennsylvania-Dutchism “toot,” which is presumably related to the Hochdeutsch “Tüte.

    And presumably to “tote bag” or just “tote”.

  21. Yay, marie-lucie is back! I was hoping this post would lure you.

  22. marie-lucie says

    Thanks LH! I have concluded that my self-imposed deprivation of LanguageHat was somewhat self-defeating.

  23. And thank Heaven you have so concluded.

    I first met fries (or rather chips, for they are ontologically distinct) in a newspaper horn in Ireland in the 1970s. More recently, my neighborhood Belgian frites shop, efficiently known simply as Pommes Frites (but destroyed in a negligent gas explosion that leveled three buildings), served their frites in made-for-purpose paper horns. The company has reopened today in a new location: they sell frites with a choice of 28 toppings (typically American excess) as well as (now) poutine.

  24. marie-lucie says

    Merci, JC!

    I think that paper horns for some kinds of snack foods have a long history. In Cyrano de Bergerac, one minor character is a pastry chef cum poet whose wife, running out of other paper, uses pages of poetry to wrap his products.

    Good pommes frites don’t need a topping!

  25. I agree: potatoes, salt, and that’s it. But for those who are curious, here’s the list. On the home page there is a link to a site where you can buy the cones themselves in various colors, including red and white checks, plain white, and even pseudo-newspaper. I suppose this is for someone who wants to make and serve frites at a party.

    Here’s most of Scene II.v of Cyrano, set in the pastry shop:

    (Marchant sur la duègne):
    Vous, deux mots, duègna !


    Êtes-vous gourmande ?

    A m’en rendre malade.

    CYRANO (prenant vivement des sacs de papier sur le comptoir):
    Bon. Voici deux sonnets de monsieur Benserade. . .

    LA DUÈGNE (piteuse):
    Heu !. . .

    . . .que je vous remplis de darioles.

    LA DUÈGNE (changeant de figure):
    Hou !

    Aimez-vous le gâteau qu’on nomme petit chou ?

    LA DUÈGNE (avec dignité):
    Monsieur, j’en fais état, lorsqu’il est à la crème.

    J’en plonge six pour vous dans le sein d’un poème
    De Saint-Amant ! Et dans ces vers de Chapelain
    Je dépose un fragment, moins lourd, de poupelin.
    —Ah ! Vous aimez les gâteaux frais ?

    J’en suis férue !

    CYRANO (lui chargeant les bras de sacs remplis):
    Veuillez aller manger tous ceux-ci dans la rue.

    Mais. . .

    CYRANO (la poussant dehors):
    Et ne revenez qu’après avoir fini !

    I like the “Heu….” followed by “Hou !”

    In the following scene, the duenna returns to the shop and interrupts Roxane’s explanation of how much she loves Christian to say “J’ai fini les gâteaux, monsieur de Bergerac !” to which Cyrano replies “Eh bien ! lisez les vers imprimés sur le sac !” I bet that got a big laugh.

  26. as well as (now) poutine made with cured cheddar? Surely that’s wrong! Should be curds, not cured.

  27. marie-lucie says


  28. Here’s most of Scene II.v of Cyrano

    I’ve loved that play all my life, unfashionable as Rostand has been for the entirety of my life. In fact, I tried desperately to get my high school French teacher to use it for the play the French students put on every year (because I, as the best male student, would inevitably play Cyrano, and the girl I had a crush on would as certainly play Roxane), but she despised Rostand and wanted us to do some damn Jules Romains play (Knock, I think), which none of us were interested in, and in fact we wound up refusing to do it, which made her turn even more heavily to the bottle she kept in the bottom drawer of her file cabinet.

  29. David Marjanović says

    “French” fries rolled up in a folded newspaper page

    Still sold in Brussels. No idea if that’s called cornet.

  30. I’ve never seen hot food about to be eaten wrapped in old newspapers in Germany – when I read that this is done in other countries (e.g. fish ‘n chips in England) that always struck me as unhygienic. In Germany, you get your fast food on a cardboard tray or wrapped in un-printed-on paper. It used to be that fish was wrapped in old newspapers, but I haven’t seen that being done in a long while, either. But in the last couple of years, I’ve seen fries being served in “fake” newspapers, i.e. food wrapping paper on which newspaper text is printed, often in English or in a retro style, in mid- to upscale restaurants.

  31. English fish and chips hasn’t had newsprint touching the food several Imperial yonks, in my experience; when newspapers are used at all it is as an ornamental/insulating outer layer.

  32. David Marjanović says

    Actually, it wasn’t newspaper in Brussels either (8 years ago, I think).

  33. marie-lucie says

    Food wrapped in “old newspapers”: why would they be “old”, a word that suggests last week’s papers (at least) frayed from too much handling and picked up off the floor maybe. Disgusting.

    On the other hand, fresh newspapers are slick and very clean. A dog-loving, dog-breeding friend of mine used to take his dogs to a vet who used newspapers on his operating table, claiming a newspaper fresh off the printing press and just opened is sterile.

  34. Well, when I said “old” I meant is as it is normally used in German – basically yesterday’s papers, not fresh from the press, but not necessarily crumpled or read. Used as package material, because they’re cheap – who wants yesterday’s papers?

  35. That’s what I took it to mean.

  36. Hence the term fish wrap for newspapers, or newspaper content, of low quality, not even worth reading but fit only to be used as wrapping even when new.

    Related is the composer Max Reger’s comeback to one of his critics: “Ich sitze in dem kleinsten Zimmer in meinem Hause. Ich habe Ihre Kritik vor mir. Im nächsten Augenblick wird sie hinter mir sein!”

  37. Good one!

  38. I think the “cured cheddar” in the add is a simple typo, or possibly a miscorrection, for “curd cheddar”, a variety of cheddar used primarily as curds.

  39. a simple typo — yes, and I purposely underspecified my comment as to whether the error was in the word or the cheese 🙂

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