Pail / Bucket

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In a comment on "'Over the pail'", Ken Brown asked

Is "pail"/ bucket more common in US English than in British? It seems a bit quaint to me. Neither it nor "pale"/fence are a productive part of my use vocabulary I think.

And Brett responded:

"Pail" also sounds a bit quaint (or perhaps "cutesy") to my American ear. There are contexts in which use of "pail" would be completely unremarkable, but they are contexts that are generally quaint or cutesy already—for example: milking a cow by hand, shoveling sand at the beach, or picking blueberries.

Here's a map of the traditional pail/bucket isogloss, from Hans Kurath, "A word geography of the eastern United States", 1949  (via William A. Kretzschmar Jr., "Quantitative areal analysis of dialect features", Language Variation and Change 1996):

Where I grew up in eastern Connecticut, this was definitely a pail:

It didn't matter whether it was full of water, sand, garbage, whitewash, or whatever. There was nothing cutesy about it.

On the other hand, we called this sort of thing a "mop bucket":

I believe that the upper midwest also traditionally had pail rather than bucket.


  1. Stephen R. Anderson said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 1:36 pm

    My upper-midwest (born Madison, WI) lexicon certainly has "pail" as the unmarked object of this sort. "Buckets" were rather more specialized things, like very big ones, the thing on a rope that you lower into a well, or perhaps the wooden ones in the Mickey Mouse "Sorcerer's Apprentice" cartoon. Mark's "mop bucket" is sort of marginal — looks like a special kind of pail to me.

    [(myl) It IS a special kind of pail — in fact, when I was young, such things were basically just pails with a mop-squeezing apparatus stuck on top of them. I presume that we called them "mop buckets" because they were imported contraptions that brought an imported name with them. ("Imported" from the other side of the isogloss, I mean.)

    These days, "mop buckets" are more specialized and less obviously pail-oid:

    As a kid, I remember thinking it was funny that just sticking a couple of mop-wringing rollers on top of a pail turned it into a kind of bucket.]

  2. GeorgeW said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 1:42 pm

    Presumably, no one 'kicks the pail."

  3. GP said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 2:05 pm

    Primarily, it seems to be a size/weight distinction. (western New York state upbringing)

    Some typical containers:

    Metal pail — 2-3 gal.
    Plastic bucket — 5 gal.
    Wooden bucket — any size, really; heavier than metal counterpart

    I think the "mop bucket" is more the result of avoiding stacking the "p" sounds on top of each other.

  4. Brett said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 2:07 pm

    I actually agree that the first metal container shown could unremarkably be called a "pail." However (and this is probably both a geographical and generational difference), a metal pail already seems rather quaint to me. Where I live in the South and where I most recently lived, in the (non-upper) Midwest, metal pails like that appear to be primarily for decorative, rather than practical, use, in both rural and urban environments.

  5. lynneguist said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 2:13 pm

    This is one that I've done on Separated by a Common Language with reference to what you take to the beach– without US isogloss info.
    See:, if you're interested…

  6. boris said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 2:21 pm

    It's not clear to me from the map whether pail is to the north of the line or to the south, or between the various lines. As for me (originally from Russia, but apparently right in the unstable area on the map that is New Jersey), I feel that "bucket" is the default word with the exception of "garbage pail" (a "pail of water" is a semi-exception thanks to Jack and Jill, but I think I would still more likely say "bucket of water"), although I'd say "trashcan" more readily. Does anyone say "garbage bucket"?

  7. rootlesscosmo said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 2:26 pm

    Has anyone looked at the distribution of "dinner pail"/"lunch bucket"? I have the impression both terms are sort of old-fashioned so it might be hard to do.

  8. Chris C. said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 2:33 pm

    I grew up on the north side of the isogloss shown on the map, in Central New Jersey, and "pail" and "bucket" were pretty much interchangeable. I don't recall a strong preference for either one or the other either in my family or among my neighbors. My area was mixed rural and suburban; nowadays definitely more the latter than the former but that wasn't so much the case at the time. It's possible that my 4-H leader preferred "pail" — she was from a long-established local family — but I don't remember clearly.

    Dragonflies were definitely dragonflies, and I never recall hearing "darning needle" from either of my parents, one of whom grew up in Bayonne and the other in Elizabeth. Nor did my Hudson County relatives call them "darning needles" when we were at the "house at the lake" where we saw them all the time. (North Jersey, pretty much where you'd expect to find such a thing.) This would have been the mid to late 1960s through the 1970s, so perhaps the expression was already obsolete by then. The first time I remember encountering the expression was in Richard Feynman's memoirs.

  9. Dick Margulis said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 2:47 pm

    In a small bread bakery (in today's terms, but what would have been a large commercial bakery before the advent of industrial baking à la Wonder Bread), a pail holds 14 quarts (3.5 gallons) and a bucket holds 5 gallons. This usage may have originated in the northeastern U.S., but it was pretty well standardized by bakery textbooks in the early part of the 20th c. and would thus be pretty uniform within the baking industry across the country. I believe a milk pail (back in the day before milking machines) was also 14 quarts.

  10. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 3:08 pm

    However accurate these isoglosses may have been in 1949, I have lived on the northeast side of them for two decades now and I have never heard anyone at all (including my children and their peers who have lived in or near the NY suburbs for their entire lives) use "darning needle" for dragonfly. Perhaps this is in part because the household tool that gives rise to the one-time regionalism is now itself archaic/obsolete? (If my kids know what "darning socks" even means, it's from old books.)

    [(myl) I was born and raised well north and east of the line. As as a child in the 1950s, I can't recall anyone using the term "darning needle". They were just dragonflies, no question about it. So I'm certainly not vouching for the map, though it was made on the basis of dialect-atlas surveys done in the preceding decades.

    But I think it's clear that there were (and are) substantial chunks of the U.S. where medium-sized open-topped cylindrical or truncated-cone-shaped containers with handles were (and are) called "pails".]

    I grew up only a little bit south of the "pail" isogloss (in the Delaware Valley) and I and I believe my peers certainly knew and used both "pail" and "bucket" as a child although I don't think I can now reliably say which seemed primary and which alternative, or what other nuances of distinct-from-one-another meaning they might have had. (The relevant regionalism is that either one could be filled up with water from what we called a "spicket" which was a particular kind of faucet that I only realized in adulthood was obviously a devoiced version of a somewhat non-standard meaning of "spigot.") My parents grew up on opposite sides of the isogloss and are old enough that 1949 data ought to be relevant, but to the extent I've ever been able to notice any differents in their speech, pail/bucket choice isn't it.

  11. K said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 3:34 pm

    Please excuse my confusing, but which side of the isogloss is supposed to use "pail"? If I'm tracking the discussion correctly, it's supposed to be the NORTHEASTERN region which uses "pail"? Because this Alabamian grew up hearing both of them, with "pail" sounding more old-fashioned if anything.

  12. Deb said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 3:57 pm

    I grew up in NE Iowa. I don't know how prevalent the bucket/pail issue was in this area but it was a huge distinction in my immediate and extended families. My lineage is German/Scottish on my father's side but I can't find anything that would account for the distinction in circular carrying devices.

    Pail=metal. Period. Buckets were never metal. If dad asked for a "pail of oats" or a "pail of water", you best bring the item back in a metal container.

    Bucket was anything else.

    But, here's where it gets murkier in terms of language. Dad rarely asked for a "pail of oats". Dry items were generally always carried in plastic or wooden containers. Pails hung on a hook by the water trough. Pails were reserved for liquid items. He had a row of pails in the milk house and, if one of them met an untimely demise, such as the time grandpa ran over a couple with the tractor, they were replaced like for like even though galvanized pails cost twice what a plastic one would. Pails lasted a long time, so the high cost was justified by longevity. We often carried buckets of water to the pigs or to the garden. Those were plastic or wooden. The pails were reserved for the barn.

    This was the same language used on my uncle's farm and on the farms of the extended family. At the farms of friends, the terms were used interchangeably and everyone knew for what you were asking. I still use the distinction today. Pail=metal and bucket=everything else.

  13. MattF said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 3:59 pm

    I grew up in New York City, and I definitely recall dragonflies called what I heard as 'dining needles' in the 50's.

  14. Daniel von Brighoff said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 4:07 pm

    @rootlesscosmo: Never heard "dinner pail" before. It gets about 80,000 Ghits whereas "lunch pail" gets close to 400,000.

    I remember hearing "lunch pail" when I was a child, but I can't remember who the speaker was. Even then (early 70s) it struck me as old fashioned and rustic–everyone else around me called them "lunchboxes". But then I lived in the Lower Midwest (St Louis, Mo) and we didn't have "pails" there.

  15. CuConnacht said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 4:11 pm

    I grew up in NYC in the 1950s and I remember darning needle, devil's darning needle, and dragonfly all in common circulation. Also pail, although I think bucket has largely replaced it in my own speech.

  16. Steve said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 4:11 pm

    I grew up in Southern California, and have lived since then in Washington state. To me, there's nothing quaint, cutesy, or "old-fashioned" about pail, and pail is certainly not an old-fashioned term for "bucket". Rather, pails and buckets are generally different things: pails are the smallish metal containers shown in the first picture, while "bucket" generally connotes a wooden container lowered into a well, unless a particular type of bucket has been specified.

    I've never heard the term "mop bucket" before, nor seen an item that looks like the second picture, and I'm not sure what I would have called an item like the one in the second picture if I had had to guess.

    It occurs to me, although this is rather speculative, that "mop and bucket" is a fairly fixed phrase which is almost in the nature of an idiomatic expression. The strong lexical connection between mop and bucket may explain why the item was called a "mop bucket" despite its clearly pailish qualities. If a strong word association between mop and bucket did not exist, I suspect the item would be called a mop pail (at least in the parts of the country where pail is the preferred term for round, metal containers of that size).

  17. D Sky Onosson said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 4:31 pm

    I grew up (and still live) in Canada, specifically Manitoba, and "pail" is definitely the default for anything small enough to have a handle and be carried. In contrast to the OP, "bucket" to my ears sounds a bit old-fashioned, if anything.

  18. Dick Margulis said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 4:47 pm

    I have a vague recollection of darning needle for damselflies but never for dragonflies, fwiw. And that would have been in the northern part of the U.S.

  19. Rubrick said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 5:44 pm

    I grew up in the '70s and '80s in suburban Cincinnati, which was definitely bucket country for me. Either it wasn't upper enough or midwest enough for "pail" to predominate, or, you know, isoglosses aren't nice and neat.

  20. rootlesscosmo said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 5:47 pm

    @Daniel von Brighoff:

    "Full dinner pail" was a campaign slogan that lodged in my brain from a high school US History course; WiPe tells me it was McKinley in 1900. I never heard anyone say "dinner pail" myself.

  21. ALEX MCCRAE said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 5:56 pm

    While growing up in mid-'50s Toronto, I can't recall dragonflies as being specifically referred to as "darning needles" by name, per se, but as very young kids there was a shared kind of urban legend, of sorts, afoot in my neighborhood, that one should strictly avoid direct contact w/ dragonflies at all cost, 'cause these tiny fleet-of-wing flying insects could quickly sew up one's mouth, hence the 'darning needle' association.

    At a young age I had seen a few B&W photos of actual shrunken human heads from the Amazon, and Papua New Guinea, and was always freaked out by the fact that these unfortunate souls had their mouths stitched oh-so-tightly w/ some type of natural fiber.

    Would this be OUR ultimate fate, us naive youngsters pondered, if a dragonfly happened to attack? (This was more the stuff of the recently departed dark-humorist/ illustrator, Maurice Sendak, no?)

    For me, this dragonfly-as-nature's-malevolent-seamstress myth kind of falls into a similar category as another adults-let's-scare-the-bejeebers-out-of-the-kids tall-tale, namely, the parental faux-warning to their kids to avoid flying bats in the house, lest they get caught up in one's hair*. Balderdash!

    (Likely a hyper-fear of rabies was the main impetus for this particular urban 'myth'.)

    Poor little bats seem to always get a bum rap—- sadly, one of the most misunderstood, and much-maligned creatures on our planet. I guess ignorance IS bliss….. but not for the bats. (The whole romanticized pop-culture fixation on all-things-vampire, these days, doesn't help. Thankfully it appears to be waning, of late.)

    *So using this warped logic, those '60s-era giant Afro-doos must have been virtual magnets for wayward bats. (Now don't go spreading the rumor that Black Power advocate, Angela Davis, was completely 'batty'. Groan.)

  22. Arnold Zwicky said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 6:05 pm

    Just a reminder that the Kurath 1949 maps were taken from Linguistic Atlas materials collected in the 1930s from mostly older and rural informants (who had mostly been resident in their communities all their lives) — so the maps represent the conservative usage of the later 19th century. No guarantee that the areas are still valid 140 years or so later.

  23. Ethan said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 6:42 pm

    For me (childhood split between New England and Northern Ohio) it's always "pail and shovel". As evidence that this is also true in Wisconsin, in the 1970s one semi-political organization associated with the UW Madison student body was the Pail & Shovel Party. Neither "lunch pail" nor "lunch bucket" sound right, though. It was always "lunch box", even if the object in question was not at all box-like.

    I agree with an earlier comment that "darning needle" is an alternative name for a damselfly, not a dragonfly.

  24. MonkeyBoy said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 6:48 pm

    I am under the impression that a pail is always a pail when it is a milk pail (?milk bucket?) but then again I would think milking a cow by hand is fairly rare these days.

  25. GeorgeW said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 7:14 pm

    Did northeast American fire companies have 'pail brigades?'

  26. John Burgess said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 7:28 pm

    Growing up between MI and MA in the 50s, both 'bucket' and 'pail' were mostly interchangeable to me. MA had a strong preference for 'pail', though. 'Milk pail', 'maple sap pail', 'bread pail' (in which large quantities of bread dough would be put to rise), 'ash pail' (in which fireplace or furnace ashes would be put for disposal) .

    'Dragonfly', 'Damselfly', '(Devil's) Darning Needle' were all used equally for any member of Odonata unless one was really being scientifically specific.

  27. Steve Morrison said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 7:46 pm

    @Rubrick: Same here, and I grew up in suburban Cincinnati a decade before you did. And like Chris C., I first learned the "darning needle = dragonfly" usage from Feynman's book, as an adult.

    @K: You're asking which side of the isogloss is "beyond the pail"?

  28. Chris C. said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 7:55 pm

    @Ethan — I honestly don't think any of us could tell the difference between a damselfly and a dragonfly when I was a kid. Or as adults, for that matter.

  29. Eee said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 7:57 pm

    I'm from northern Pennsylvania, and to me pails are smaller and always metal. Anything else is a bucket.

  30. Ethan said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 8:28 pm

    @Chris C: But, but, but,… the damselflies are the ones that look like darning needles! They fold their wings back so that they look like one long sharp thing. Dragonflies, so far as I know, keep their wings sticking out to the sides and so look a lot less needlelike. The sample image on Wikipedia gives the idea.

  31. ShadowFox said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 8:50 pm

    No geography help on my part–didn't grow up in US and split time between different parts of the country (and even when stationary, most dealing with university crowds that came from all over the place), but I was curious about several items. First, Boris reminded me of "Garbage Pail Kids"–in fact, I expected it to be "Garbage Pale Kids" and had to look it up to be sure (it's "pail"). So the my "pail" list includes "lunch pail" (my own preference would be "lunch box" or "lunch bag", depending on the actual item); "garbage pail" (but mostly associated with "garbage pail kids" and nothing else for me); "sand pail" (something kids play with to make sand castles, for example–usage that I find acceptable); "paint pail" (does anyone refer to the one-gallon "can" of paint as "bucket"? What about the five-gallon "pail"? I find the reference to be to "pail" when paint is implied, but "bucket" when paint is mentioned explicitly, i.e., "utility pail", but "paint bucket"–see Home Depot and Lowe's displays).

  32. Chris C. said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 9:29 pm

    @Ethan — Yes, I know that because I just looked it up, but I'm absolutely positive the distinction was lost on my 10 year old self, and my contemporaries. We tended to call it a "damselfly" if it had a slimmer body and was brightly colored. There was no reference to the position of the wings when at rest that I can recall.

  33. Doug said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 10:10 pm

    I grew up in rural Pennsylvania somewhere close to where the isoglosses all cross the Ohio border on the map.

    The two terms were almost entirely interchangeable as far as I could tell, with the exception of a few idiomatic phrases ("kick the bucket", "bucket brigade"). My own sense is that "bucket" is slightly less refined and more informal, although I won't swear that anybody else in my acquaintance would agree. I'm actually a little startled to hear that "pail" would be considered more "quaint".

    The only differences in usage I noticed growing up were:
    — I took a "lunchpail" to school, while my father called the one he took to work a "lunchbucket".
    — I don't recall ever hearing "milk bucket", only "milk pail", used by the dairy farmers that surrounded us. "Milk bucket" sounds very strange to my ears

    I can't call to mind any other combinations where a strong preference was shown: "Water bucket" and "water pail", "slop bucket" and "slop pail", "sand bucket" and "sand pail", "syrup bucket" and "syrup pail" all seem quite normal.

    I encountered "darning needle" as a name for an insect only in books. "Dragonfly" was the only term for them that I ever heard anyone speak.

  34. Mark Mandel said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 10:20 pm

    Like several other commenters, I wondered which side of the isogloss was supposed to be which. Then I noticed the caption over the legend at the lower right: "Figure 5a / The North I". So these terms are (were) used in the North, so north of the isoglosses.

    My maternal grandmother (b. 1888, NYC) called dragonflies "devil's darning needles".

  35. Martha said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 10:42 pm

    I grew up in Oregon, and for me, a pail is metal, and a bucket is made from any material — including metal. That is, a pail is a kind of bucket. I would call a metal bucket a "bucket," or a "metal bucket" if describing the material was necessary. I can't imagine myself using the word "pail," unless I was trying to be cutesy. For example, my small, metal compost bucket is referred to as just that, a compost bucket.

    Additionally, I work in retail, and we have metal buckets that we put merchandise in. As Brett (I think) said, metal buckets are often used decoratively in order to seem quaint; that is definitely what my store is going for. Anyway, I can't recall a time that anyone has referred to one of them as a "pail" (although now I'm going to be looking out for it). However, we use bins like this ( to put stuff in, and occasionally someone will call one of them a "bucket." This has always perplexed and annoyed me. Maybe it's because it's made of bucket material? To me, it can't be a bucket if it doesn't have a handle, and it probably ought to be round.

    And to answer ShadowFox's question, I probably wouldn't call the one-gallon container that paint comes in a "bucket," but I wouldn't call it a "pail," either. It's most definitely a can, albeit one with a handle.

    I actually didn't realize until I saw others' comments here that one might call a garbage can a "garbage pail" (though it makes perfect sense now that I think about it); I guess I assumed that in "Garbage Pail Kids," it was a play on lunch pail.

  36. YM said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 11:58 pm

    I always thought a pail was something wider than a bucket, that you can wash clothes in, or stand in it and wash yourself. But then, English is not my native language. All you pail/bucket people, what do you call the thing I am talking about?

    [(myl) A "wash tub". Can also become a musical instrument.]

  37. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    August 24, 2012 @ 12:06 am

    I grew up in the foothills of the northern Catskills. Darning needles were damselflies — although I didn't know they were damselflies and thought that "little" dragonflies were called darning needles. I mostly noticed them in flight, so I didn't see the differences they exhibit when perched somewhere.

    I use pail and bucket interchangeably, but a couple of usages are fixed:
    milk pail
    pail of water or bucket of water
    sand pail
    pail of sand or bucket of sand
    mop pail (sometimes) but mostly mop bucket (particularly for the second illustration above and a plastic bucket that is squarish instead of round)
    can of paint but "half a pail of paint" or "half a bucket" or "half a can"
    (empty metal container that used to hold honey or paint, round with a metal handle) pail or little pail or can
    garbage pail or garbage can (I've never heard "garbage bucket.")
    trash can
    compost pail or compost bucket
    ice bucket (specialized term)
    wooden bucket
    dinner pail or lunch pail (terms I've read but haven't used)
    lunch box or lunch bag

    I don't differentiate between pail and bucket based on size, but a can is smaller — probably pretty much a one-gallon size if it has a handle and can be carried like a pail except in the case of a milk can, trash can, or garbage can. A garbage can or a trash can is never as small as one gallon and can be enormous compared to the other pails and buckets in my garage.

  38. Janet Kwasniak said,

    August 24, 2012 @ 5:51 am

    To my Canadian ear (grandparents: North England, Ontario, Nebraska, Nebraska) bucket sounds like something in a southern folk song. Everything like that was a pail in my upbringing. Even Jack and Jill got their water in a pail.

  39. David said,

    August 24, 2012 @ 6:46 am

    Just a thought on the subject of "lunch pail" vs. "lunch box." A hundred years ago, people actually used metal pails, just like the first picture, to transport their lunch to work. The addition of hinged lids made them special-purpose objects, and that freed up the shape to eventually become boxes. Or in the case of my kids, years ago, a succession of strange and wondrous creatures.

  40. Rodger C said,

    August 24, 2012 @ 7:46 am

    @ShadowFox: Yes, to me it's a "paint bucket." West Virginia, b. 1948. To me "pail" is a specialized and alternative word for that metal thing in the first illustration.

  41. Bloix said,

    August 24, 2012 @ 7:55 am

    I grew up outside of Boston in the 60's , with parents from New York, and we said pail. Bucket was an odd word that appeared in the song "there's a hole in the bucket Maria Maria" and nowhere else. I remember that when I first heard that song at school I didn't know what a bucket was.
    And we did say "darning needle.". Dragonfly was a grown-up word.

  42. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 24, 2012 @ 8:26 am

    I grew up in suburban Cleveland. I think I pretty much always said and say "bucket", but "pail" sounds normal too.

    I knew the difference between dragonflies and damselflies, but I don't think many of the other kids around did. For me, as for some others here, "darning needle" was only a phrase in books.

  43. Amy Stoller said,

    August 24, 2012 @ 9:05 am

    NYC born, bred, and living. Pail or bucket interchangeable in meaning, but we said, and I still say, pail. Paint comes in cans (even if they're plastic). Sang about both pails and buckets as a kid: Jack and Jill had a pail, but Dear Henry and Dear Liza had a bucket with a hole in it.

    Lunch pail and dinner pail known to me only through reading. We had lunch boxes as kids, and as an adult I've brown-bagged it (even when the food was in a plastic bag or some other type of container altogether, rather than a brown paper bag aka lunch bag).

    Never even heard of a garbage bucket. That one sounds really "off" to me. We have trash cans/garbage cans; those can be inside or outside the home, and while they tend to be large, in the home they can be small. In the home we can also have wastepaper baskets – those are small. Usually we just say garbage or trash without reference to the container. Ashcans also a familiar term, but largely through reading, references to the Ashcan School of artists, etc.

    Ice bucket, though, always – never an ice pail.

  44. Amy Stoller said,

    August 24, 2012 @ 9:06 am

    Come to think of it, I'd probably lower a bucket into a well, and not a pail. But that may be because I've read more about wells than encountered them in real life.

  45. Mr Punch said,

    August 24, 2012 @ 9:26 am

    I'm from the Boston area, grew up in the '50s-'60s — "pail" and "dragonfly." A pail is exactly as pictured, though material may vary; a bucket may be the same only bigger, but usually refers to a container of another shape (with a handle).

  46. ShadowFox said,

    August 24, 2012 @ 11:46 am

    "I encountered "darning needle" as a name for an insect only in books. "Dragonfly" was the only term for them that I ever heard anyone speak."

    That may actually explain the use of "damselfly". I've always assumed that all dragonfly-looking insects were dragonflies. And I noticed that a couple of followups do tie "darning needle" to "damselfly". Sounds right to me, although I've never heard the terms in the wild (only seen them in print).

  47. Mary Kuhner said,

    August 24, 2012 @ 1:56 pm

    I grew up in Washington State and Alaska in the 1960's-70's. "Bucket" was the general word, but the small plastic things you took to the beach or pool were "pail." Garbage and paint always came in "cans" no matter what the size, or "wastebasket" for an indoor garbage can–that one is strange in that it applies to very non-basket versions such as a solid plastic container. I can't bring myself to call the three-gallon plastic thing I'm looking at a "bucket" even though it is nothing like a "basket." I note, however, that my University now calls it a "bin."

    We also had Jack and Jill with a pail and Dear Henry and Liza with a bucket.

  48. Gabriel Burns said,

    August 24, 2012 @ 6:03 pm

    @Bloix Not quite a linguistic difference, but still a regional one: growing up in Northeastern North Dakota I sang "There's a hole in the bucket, dear Liza". I have no Idea who this Maria character is. People generally tended to use 'pail'/'bucket' interchangeably, though I always said 'bucket', probably because my parents did (they weren't NoDak natives).

  49. MarkA said,

    August 24, 2012 @ 8:29 pm

    Like Deb who commented yesterday, I grew up in NE Iowa (go Comets!). I share her distinction that a pail is metal, most of the time. As an adult, I went to college in Boston, then have lived in the DC area aside from several overseas stints. I now use bucket a lot more than I would have growing up. I would now only use pail for a metal object of around 1-2 gallons volume. But as a kid, I could see using the term plastic pail, especially for a child's toy at the beach, for example. A wooden implement as in a water well, however, would probably have been a bucket.

  50. MarkA said,

    August 24, 2012 @ 8:32 pm

    And I've never heard the term "[devil's] darning needle" outside of old-fashioned books a la Little House on the Prairie.

  51. Terry Collmann said,

    August 24, 2012 @ 9:47 pm

    The OED may be relevant here: "The precise range of vessels denoted by pail, as distinct from the near-synonymous bucket, has varied over time, and there continues to be much regional variation. As a word for a container for milk, pail has long been preferred (cf. milk-pail n. at milk n.1 and adj. Compounds 1b), and it is now frequently taken to be a container for liquids, esp. one made of metal (or plastic); though originally it was made of wooden staves hooped with iron. Cf. dinner-pail n. at dinner n."

  52. PaulB said,

    August 25, 2012 @ 8:12 am

    Here in England, a largish, round, open-topped container is a 'bucket'. 'Pail' is recognized but faintly archaic – a milking pail, or something fetched by Jack and Jill.

    A similarly shaped container for refuse is a 'bin' or, for waste paper, a 'basket'.

    We carry lunch in a box or possibly a bag. I googled some pictures of lunch pails just to find out whether people really carry their lunch in a bucket: in practice most lunch pails seem to be chests or boxes.

    I'm don't know whether the meaning of 'pale' in 'beyond the pale' is generally understood, but the English pale in Ireland was on the history syllabus when I was at school some years ago.

  53. NCSmith said,

    August 25, 2012 @ 12:28 pm

    I grew up on a dairy farm in southern Ontario, and we used "pail", especially for "milk pail" (a three-Imperial gallon, stainless steel container with a handle), but also for anything else that would carry liquids. We had buckets on the tractor's front-end loader, suitable for handling bulk solids of various kinds. For lunch, we used lunch-boxes, not pails nor buckets.

  54. D Sky Onosson said,

    August 25, 2012 @ 2:15 pm

    Interesting that all(?) the Canadian commenters have "pail" as the general default term, while "bucket" seems to have that status almost everywhere else. Prior to this post, I never would have guessed that to be the case.

  55. Lady P. Davidson said,

    August 25, 2012 @ 4:10 pm

    Almost a native of South Central PA (we moved here from Baltimore when I was two). I have never used, nor ever heard anyone from around here use, the word "pail." From the tiny sand-castle model to the gigantic ones for drywall compound, everything's a bucket. In fact, "pail" strikes me as somewhat contrived, like a persistent use of an obsolete term.

    As for the lunch-containing items, they're either lunchboxes (if made of stiff materal such as metal or plastic) or lunchbags (fabric or paper). I do remember my elementary school principal referring to them as lunchkettles, though. Don't know where he was from.

  56. John said,

    August 25, 2012 @ 11:25 pm

    Raised in Brooklyn in the 70s. We said darning needles and also said dragonfly, and though I don't really remember much of a distinction, the littler ones were not ever called dragonflies.

    I'd have said pail too for that metal thing, though there are lots of kinds of buckets. Like BPL, garbage pails, though again I think I'd say can too, but never bucket. And those are big.

  57. Glen said,

    August 26, 2012 @ 3:38 am

    I got curious about this and I looked this up and found my way to this website because of my blog, which is called "Foot In The Bucket'. It got me curious as to what parts of the country say "pail" and what parts say "bucket."

    Now, when I say "foot in the bucket", that's baseball slang, but I decided to put a horse with his foot in a bucket so that people, including people not familiar with baseball, would remember it more. (My blog's actually very eclectic, although there's SOME baseball in it!)

    As for what I SAY, generally, I say bucket, not pail. When I THINK of a bucket, though, it's generally metal and with a handle; the picture that I settled on for my website is a horse with it's foot in a bucket, but I would specify that it's a PLASTIC bucket. To me, a bucket is metal, and if I wanted a plastic bucket, then I would specify a "plastic bucket". I rarely use the word "pail". Generally, when I think of a "pail", that's what a little kid uses at the beach with a little plastic shovel to put sand into!

    I grew up in the borough of Queens in New York City, then in Nassau County (Long Island), right near to the Nassau/Queens border. My dad's from the Bronx, my mother's from northwest of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, right on the Ohio River, HER mom was from Cleveland and her dad was from northwest of Pittsburgh (I'm just telling all that in terms of possible influences.)


  58. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 27, 2012 @ 11:58 am

    Apologies for lateness of this datapoint, which is from an observation made just yesterday while at the Dutchess County Fair in Rhinebeck, N.Y. I saw what based on this thread should be the paradigm case of a AmEng "pail": a) it was metal; b) it was specifically being used for (well, in a child-friendly simulated demonstration of) the traditional method of milking a cow; and c) it was on the "pail" side of the old isogloss. Rather unquaintly, however, the pail had a conspicuous warning label on it, of the sort presumably recommended by the lawyers/insurers of the manufacturer or someone else in the distribution chain (similar to but not identical to this one:, and that label used the word "bucket." Now, obviously such labeling practices might well be done on a national basis and with one form of words for a wider range of bucket/pail-genre products rather than being varied/customized for the more distinctively pail-like ones. But I still thought it might be interesting in the context of this thread.

  59. Bloix said,

    August 28, 2012 @ 4:07 pm

    Both words used in a single paragraph:

    "J.W. Westcott II, a converted tug with a 220-hp engine, was a common sight on the Detroit River, where since 1949, it has delivered mail, pilots, supplies and other items to visiting tankers and freighters. The vessel is best known for its "mail in a pail" service: It delivers letters to crewmen who lower a bucket from large ships to retrieve them."

  60. Jason Eisner said,

    September 4, 2012 @ 10:56 pm

    For me, the physical containers are usually "pails." When I was a kid in northern New Jersey, "bucket" sounded folksy and farmy to me.

    Yet I use bucket more comfortably as a metaphorical unit of measurement. It's raining buckets, it takes many buckets of water to put out a fire, horses go through oats by the bucket, your brother is denser than a bucket of rocks, the vice-presidency isn't worth a bucket (or a bucketful) of warm spit, etc.
    that stores
    Unrelatedly, I think I also prefer "bucket" to refer to a container of differentiated objects from which one might choose. Thus, I'd say "a bucket of toys" or "a bucket of tools" even when the actual container looked like the classic pail shown in Mark's original post. Replacing the contents would make it "a pail of blueberries," "a pail of water," "a pail of sand."

    Maybe I get this last use of "bucket" from computer science? Various algorithms organize data items into buckets (never pails). For example, when sorting a collection of names, one might initially throw all names starting with the letter "A" into the "A" bucket, etc. One can speak of bucketing the data.

  61. Johanna Steper said,

    January 15, 2013 @ 11:05 am

    Until the past five or so years, I had only heard pail as the normal, generic term. "Bucket" was old-fashioned and folksy, familiar only in the Henry and Liza song. I think the movie about a bucket list has changed the language. I hear bucket very frequently now. That is the reason for my reading this list – to see what happened.

    I heard both dragonfly and darning needle as a child, but we were always warned that it was an old wives' tale about darning needles and to not pay attention to it. (I still occasionally darn socks!)

    By the way, what about teeter-totter and see-saw? Until I moved to Albany, I never heard see-saw.

    I grew up in Northern New York and now live in Albany.

  62. Dw said,

    January 15, 2013 @ 2:53 pm

    @Johanna Steper:

    Growing up in England, my experience was the opposite of yours. "Bucket" was the everyday word; "pail" was restricted to nursery rhymes. And the rocking toy was always a "see-saw": "teeter-totter" was unknown until I came to the US (it doesn't exactly roll of the tongue in a typical English accent!).

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