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shameless pleading

Bespoke

It goes well with my lark’s-tongue shoes.

Dear Word Detective: Can you tell me why the word “bespoke” has become so popular recently? Did a movie actor or rock celeb re-coin the term? — Stuart Rosenberg.

Not that I know of, but what do I know? I seem to have a serious celebrity/showbiz/tabloid news deficiency. I didn’t know who Casey Anthony was until last month, and if Beyonce has a last name, it’s news to me. In fact, until the Anthony business, I had only a hazy idea of who Nancy Grace is, and I certainly didn’t realize that she’s mad as a March hare. I’m rather surprised that she isn’t running for president on a platform calling for the return of the rack and public stoning. Then again, the electoral night is young.

While pop culture, broadly defined, can certainly boost the popularity of a word or phrase to annoying heights (you can blame the musical “Les Miserables” for the “at the end of the day” plague, for instance), I think the rising rage for “bespoke” has more to do with the world of hedge funds than with either Hollywood or hip-hop. Leave it to the guys taking home a billion per year without breaking a sweat to gravitate to the classiest synonym out there for “wretched excess.”

“Bespoke” (for those of us who aren’t Masters of the Universe in the Tom Wolfe sense) simply means “made to order,” and has usually been applied to clothing (especially men’s suits or shoes) or other luxury goods. In tailoring,”bespoke” was originally a level of quality above “custom-made,” because a “bespoke” suit had to be hand-cut and hand-sewn from a pattern made for that particular customer, not simply machine-made and tailored from a modified standard pattern. According to Michael Quinion at World Wide Words (www.worldwidewords.org), however, in 2008 the British Advertising Standards Authority ruled that machine-made suits tailored to an individual customer could be called “bespoke.” Cue the angry grumbling from Grosse Pointe and Greenwich.

By 2008, on the other hand, “bespoke” had already been adopted to describe all sorts of consumer goods, from kitchen cabinets to surfboards, that had merely been custom-made or custom-modified for someone who was willing and able to pay much more than a sane person would.

Although “bespoke” is in common use in Britain, it strikes the American ear as slightly strange and exotic, a fact that has, no doubt, increased its appeal among the wealthy and would-be wealthy in the US. The Anglophiliac tendencies of that same demographic almost certainly also played a role in the spread of the term. And, of course, the mass media barkers are always on the lookout for new buzzwords, so “bespoke” is suddenly everywhere.

But while “bespoke” may sound exotic, that’s only because it’s a bit antiquated. “Bespoke” is an adjective formed from the verb “to bespeak,” which first appeared in Old English as “besprecan,” meaning “to speak out, to call out,” especially in a forceful, public manner (the prefix “be,” in this instance, acting as an intensifier). “Bespeak” went on to develop a number of senses in Modern English, but the only one still in use is “to indicate or give evidence of” (“But her House Bespake a sleepy hand of negligence,” Wordsworth, 1814).

One of the senses “bespeak” developed, back in the 17th century, was “to request or engage a person to do something” (“Then fairely I bespoke the Officer To go in person with me to my house,” Shakespeare, The Comedy of Errors, 1616). This sense of “bespeak” is obsolete as a verb, but its past participle “bespoke” lives on as an adjective redolent (at least until lately) of exclusivity and wealth. Incidentally, in case anyone out there is truly disturbed by the dilution of the definition of “bespoke,” I have a solution. Send me two million bucks and I’ll invent, just for you, a brand-new word meaning “just for you.”

8 comments to Bespoke

  • Ben Wrankle

    My first encounter with bespeak was in Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby, where a “Great Bespeak” is held for Miss Snevellicci, one of Nicholas’s actor friends. From the context it’s clear that it’s a benefit performance for Miss Snevellicci.

  • Amanda C. Peterson

    I’d also venture that the rise of the term “bespoke” is being used more frequently with the rise of Chinese and Indian tailors making suits, shirts and shoes custom for Americans more frequently — through online sites, in those “coming to your town to measure” and through it becoming more common practice to, if you have to go to Shanghai for business — which happens more frequently, you might as well stop by a custom tailor.

    As the price of “bespoke” goes down to be reachable by at least the upper middle class, the language spreads.

  • Diane

    Having traveled to London twice this year, I hear that word overused in the UK, but very seldom hear it used here in the US.

  • Jeannie

    “Bespoke” is popping up everywhere, and it strikes me as terribly affected. Editors, stem the tide!

  • mary n

    I have come across “bespoke” in many adverts and it seems to me that it is being used to put an upmarket spin on the item

  • Dot

    On holiday in Scotland this year I noticed the word “bespoke” being used extensively, whereas it was still very rarely used two years ago during my previous stay in Britain.
    I think the theory about the Chinese and Indian taylors has much plausibility. I also think that it is becoming more and more attractive to own something that was custom-made and is therefore unique. I think it’s the prevailing mass production that makes everybody looking for things that nobody else has.

  • Steve

    There are a few folks in this country (US), who insist on using the word in place of the more familiar “tailor made” or “custom made”. I think such usage is altogether pretentious, since it has never been in common usage in America. It was never at any time used even among the fine clothiers/tailors, of the east.

    Leave it where it belongs, across the pond.

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