‘Bespoke’ vs. ‘Custom-Made’ or ‘Made-to-Order’


Here’s a word that, in my view unfortunately, has been creeping into use in the U.S. – “bespoke,” as in a “bespoke” suit or shirt.

Taking myself as a representative moderately well-educated American native speaker of English, I have to admit that the first couple of times I came across “bespoke” I was completely baffled. My bafflement only grew when, upon looking it up, I realized that the term referred to what everyday Americans would call “custom-made” or “made to order.”

The men’s fashionista website, Real Men Real Style, says that although it’s rare in the U.S., the use of “bespoke” is common in Britain.

According to the dictionary, “bespoke” is derived from the archaic-sounding verb “bespeak,” which means “to speak for something.” Thus, a “bespoke” suit or shirt is one that has been “spoken for” by virtue of its having been made to order rather than sold off the rack or shelf.

Verbs and participles prefixed with “be-“ are fairly common – e.g., becalm, bedazzle, bedecked, befriend, beguile, behave, behead, behold, behoove, beleaguer, believe, beloved, bequeath, bereaved, beseech, beset, besiege, besotted, bestirred, bestow, betray, betrothed.

However, there are many others that to the modern American ear, at least, sound distinctly archaic: becharm, becloud, bedew, begird, bespangle, bespatter, bespeckle.

In America, at least, bespeak resides firmly in this collection of superannuated words.

In my view then, if you’re an American, writing “bespoke” when you mean “custom-made” bespeaks insufferable linguistic snobbery. I believe it behooves writers to avoid being so beguiled, becharmed and besotted with linguistic Anglophilia that they write “bespoke” and risk bepuzzling their fellow readers on this side of the Atlantic.

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