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Q From Edward Shaw, Michigan: In a book on the breaking of the German Enigma codes during World War Two, written by a man whose family once owned Bletchley Park (where most of the codebreaking was done), I came across this sentence: ‘By 1941 he was swanning around in a bespoke Burberry suit’. I’m virtually positive that this usage of bespoke is unknown on this side of the pond, and I wonder exactly what it means on your side?

A It’s widely used in Britain and some Commonwealth countries and isn’t entirely unknown even in the USA, I’m told, though its range is restricted to areas like high-end clothing and computer software, sometimes with a hint of Anglophile pretentiousness.

Something that is bespoke has been specially ordered and made. It can apply to any goods — a quick look though newspapers in August 2008 found it attached to jewellery, cars, beer, banking services, specially recorded music in films, guided tours, wedding cakes and furniture (“The kitchen/breakfast room is equipped with a good range of matching bespoke units with soft close drawers” — The Herald Express, Torquay, 19 August 2008).

However, this wide range of applications is relatively new. In the past it has mainly referred to clothes and is still a term of art in tailoring. It’s the opposite of off-the-peg, off-the-rack or ready-made. (from the Guardian, 10 February 2008: “If I were a man, I’d happily remortgage myself senseless to wear bespoke.”) British readers with long memories may recall a play and film of 1955, The Bespoke Overcoat, starring Alfie Bass and David Kossoff, based on a short story by Gogol.

London’s Savile Row tailors have traditionally restricted the word to clothes individually patterned that have been cut and sewn by hand.However, in a rare example of language change by fiat, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) rejected this meaning in an adjudication in June 2008. It ruled that the historic term of art had moved on and it was legitimate for a tailor offering clothes cut and sewn by machine to refer to them as bespoke, provided that they were made to the customer’s measurements. In effect the ASA removed the historic difference in tailoring between bespoke and made-to-measure.

Bespoke looks rather strange, because it’s an adjective formed from the past tense of the verb bespeak. Though rare, that verb is still in the language, though these days it means “suggest the presence of or be evidence of” (as in the Roanoke Times, Virginia, for 22 March 2008: “Their utterly convincing performances bespeak deep familiarity with their characters.”)

Bespeak can be traced right back to Old English, before the Norman Conquest. It meant not merely to speak, but to speak up or speak out, exclaim or call out. Later it had a sense of discussing or deciding on some matter; by the end of the sixteenth century it had come to mean arranging for something to be done, engaging a person to do a job, or ordering goods. The adjective bespoke came out of that sense in the middle of the eighteenth century.

It is often said that the word originally referred to cloth in a tailor’s shop that had been spoken for, that is, it had been reserved for a particular customer and so was unavailable to anybody else. The historical evidence shows this is not the case; it is a well-meaning but incorrect attempt to come to grips with this old sense of the verb bespeak.

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Page created 13 Sep 2008