Word Nerd: “Bespoke” crosses the pond. Crikey!

Some years ago while on a trip to England, I encountered some words and expressions that made me realize the importance of being bilingual in the English languages.

For example, I asked someone in London where I could find an ATM. She looked nonplussed, but her companion translated, “he means a “hole-in-the-wall.” Also, I discovered that in some English locales a speed bump is referred to as a “sleeping policeman” and that the British enjoy a bevy of insulting terms for people, such as “swot” (boring, studious student), “chav” (bad-mannered person), “anorak” (anal-retentive person) and “poncey” (effeminate) that have limited currency on this side of the Atlantic. I also recall being perplexed upon seeing a sign announcing “bespoke industrial units” and another advertising “bespoke shoes.” I got a clearer idea of the term when I saw yet another sign that read “bespoke tailors.”

“Bespoke” is now ubiquitous in North America. For example, on November 7 we read in the National Post that “Sean Connery’s Bond was the Errol Flynn of the swinging ’60s, a dapper swashbuckling Saville Row type in bespoke Turnbull & Asser shirts.” Often, the usage transcends the boundary of Saville Row, as in the following from the Globe and Mail: “Luxury travel lovers flocked to the Spoke Club for an intimate event with Mr. & Mrs. Smith, a bespoke booking service for custom travel property.”

“Bespoke” has taken the U.S. by storm. In the New York City area there are more than 20 “bespoke” companies, including “Bespoke Surgical,” “Bespoke Barber Shop,” and at least one store simply called “Bespoke.”

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office lists more than 40 active registrations and applications for “bespoke” brand names, with the majority of the patents being filed in the past two years. If you have a U.S. bespoke product or service to offer, act quickly. One person wanted to use Bespoke.com as their web address but as this belonged to Bespoke Software, he had to settle for Bespoke Innovations.

The OED defines bespoke as “ordered to be made, as distinguished from READY-MADE”; also said of a tradesman who makes goods to order.”

Strangely, the word’s first citation in 1755 refers to a play, but by the middle of the 19th century the word was most often employed in the shoemaking trade to refer to custom shoes. An 1866 citation from Chamber’s Encyclopedia says that “the shoe-making tradition is divided into two departments—the bespoke and the ready-made or safe business.” The tailoring industry adopted the word to describe the cloth customers select in advance for their suits. The cloth thus became “spoken for” or “bespoke.”

Bespoke long ago shed its tailoring sense in the U.K. and on my aforementioned jaunt I recall seeing an unlikely sign in Yorkshire advertising “bespoke fish & chips.”

In North America the same process of applying the term to a variety of sundry products has occurred. This can be verified by Googling “bespoke tricycles,” “bespoke underwear,” “bespoke toilet seats,” “bespoke condoms” and “bespoke legal advice.” So far, there isn’t a listing for “bespoke criminals.”

So why has “bespoke” become such as a popular marketing word? Justin Watters, the co-founder of the Bespoke Investment Group LLC based in Harrison, New York, says: “Like a bespoke tailor, investors measure risk tolerance needs and outlook in order to develop a strategy that fits their unique needs.”

According to Mark-Evan Blackman, a professor at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, “bespoke has … started seeping into our consciousness as a term for our gold standard, as a male equivalent of couture.”

So, it would seem “bespoke” has become a marketing buzzword to convey the superiority of a product or service you are offering. I suppose that the term “custom” has become so commonplace that it is often replaced by the fresher “bespoke” to entice customers.

Soon, no doubt, the revived “bespoke” will lose its freshness; overuse will make everyone jaded as to what it signifies and marketeers will have to find another high-faluting word to bamboozle consumers.

Howard Richler’s bespoke book From Happy to Homosexual and other mysterious semantic shifts will be published by Ronsdale Press next spring.


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