Understanding the Idiom: "smell like a tart's handbag" - Meaning, Origins, and Usage

Idiom language: English

When it comes to idioms, some are easy to understand while others can be quite puzzling. One such idiom that may leave you scratching your head is “smell like a tart’s handbag”. This phrase has been around for quite some time and is commonly used in British English. While the meaning behind this idiom may not be immediately clear, taking a closer look at its origins and usage can help shed some light on what it means.

At its core, this idiom refers to something that smells unpleasant or foul. However, the use of the word “tart” adds an additional layer of meaning. In British slang, a tart is often used to describe a promiscuous woman or prostitute. Therefore, when someone says that something smells like a tart’s handbag, they are not only saying that it stinks but also implying that it has been in close proximity to someone who may engage in questionable behavior.

This idiom can be traced back to the early 20th century when prostitution was rampant in many parts of Europe. It was common for prostitutes to carry their belongings in large bags or purses known as handbags. These bags would often contain items such as makeup, perfume, and condoms – all things that could contribute to an unpleasant odor if left unwashed for long periods of time.

Today, this idiom is still used primarily in British English but may also be heard in other parts of the world where British slang has influenced local language use. While it may seem vulgar or offensive at first glance, understanding its history and context can help us appreciate how language evolves over time.

Origins and Historical Context of the Idiom “smell like a tart’s handbag”

The phrase “smell like a tart’s handbag” is an idiom that has been used in British English for many years. It is often used to describe something that has a strong, unpleasant odor. The origins of this idiom are not entirely clear, but it is believed to have originated in the world of prostitution.

During the 19th century, prostitutes were known to carry their condoms and other personal items in small bags or purses. These bags would often be filled with perfumes and other scented products to mask any unpleasant odors. Over time, the phrase “smell like a tart’s handbag” came into use as a way to describe anything that had an overpowering smell.

While the phrase may have originated in the world of prostitution, it has since become more widely used in everyday language. Today, it is often used humorously or sarcastically to describe anything with an intense fragrance.

Despite its somewhat unsavory origins, the idiom remains popular today and continues to be used by native speakers of British English. Its historical context serves as a reminder of how language can evolve over time and take on new meanings and connotations.

Usage and Variations of the Idiom “smell like a tart’s handbag”

The idiom “smell like a tart’s handbag” is commonly used in British English to describe an unpleasant smell. This phrase can be applied to various situations where there is an overpowering or offensive odor present. However, this idiom has also been adapted and used in different contexts with slight variations.

Variations of the Idiom

One variation of this idiom is “smell like a French brothel”. This phrase has a similar meaning as the original, but it adds a cultural reference to France and its reputation for sexual liberation.

Another variation that is more commonly used in American English is “smell like a locker room”. This phrase refers to the unpleasant odor that can often be found in sports facilities or gyms where athletes change clothes and sweat heavily.

Usage Examples

Here are some examples of how this idiom can be used:

  • “What’s that smell? It smells like a tart’s handbag!”
  • “I had to leave the gym early because it smelled like a locker room.”
  • “After cooking fish for dinner, my kitchen smelled like a French brothel.”

Synonyms, Antonyms, and Cultural Insights for the Idiom “smell like a tart’s handbag”


  • Reek of perfume
  • Smell strongly of cosmetics
  • Exude an overpowering scent
  • Aroma reminiscent of a beauty counter
  • Fragrance akin to a department store perfume aisle


  • Freshly scented with natural aromas
  • Clean-smelling without any artificial fragrances
  • Barely detectable scent or odorless altogether
  • Natural body odor without any added perfumes or cosmetics
  • Pleasant aroma from natural sources such as flowers or herbs

Culturally speaking, the phrase “smell like a tart’s handbag” is considered vulgar and offensive in some circles due to its derogatory connotations towards women who work in the sex industry. It is important to be aware of these cultural sensitivities when using idioms in conversation or writing. In British English, where this idiom originates from, there are many other colorful expressions that may be used instead depending on context and audience.

Practical Exercises for the Idiom “smell like a tart’s handbag”

In order to fully grasp the meaning of the idiom “smell like a tart’s handbag”, it is important to practice using it in various contexts. These practical exercises will help you become more comfortable with incorporating this colorful phrase into your everyday vocabulary.

Exercise 1: Conversation Practice

Find a partner and engage in a conversation where you use the idiom “smell like a tart’s handbag” at least three times. Try to use it in different ways, such as describing someone or something that has an unpleasant odor, or as an exaggeration to describe something that is chaotic or disorganized.

Exercise 2: Writing Practice

Write a short story or paragraph that includes the idiom “smell like a tart’s handbag”. Be creative and try to incorporate other idioms or expressions into your writing as well. This exercise will help you think about how idioms can be used in storytelling and descriptive writing.

Idiomatic Expressions Synonyms
“Smell like a tart’s handbag” – Have an unpleasant odor
– Be chaotic or disorganized
– Be messy or dirty
“A piece of cake” – Easy
– Simple
– Effortless
“Bite off more than one can chew” – Take on too much work
– Overcommit oneself
– Be overwhelmed by responsibilities

By practicing idiomatic expressions like “smell like a tart’s handbag”, you can improve your English language skills and become more comfortable with using colorful language in everyday conversation and writing.

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Using the Idiom “smell like a tart’s handbag”

When using idioms, it is important to understand their meaning and context. The idiom “smell like a tart’s handbag” is no exception. This phrase is often used in British English to describe a strong, unpleasant smell.

Avoid Taking the Idiom Literally

The first mistake to avoid when using this idiom is taking it literally. It does not mean that someone smells like an actual tart’s handbag. Instead, it refers to a foul odor that might be associated with such an object.

Avoid Using the Idiom Inappropriately

The second mistake to avoid when using this idiom is using it inappropriately. While it may be tempting to use colorful language, this expression should only be used in informal situations where its meaning will be understood.

Mistake Correction
Taking the idiom literally Understanding its figurative meaning
Using the idiom in formal settings or with unfamiliar audiences Reserving its use for informal situations where its meaning will be understood by all parties involved
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