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Strictly Bespeaking

A year or so ago, Carol and I were driving somewhere, and we passed a bus stop shelter with an ad for condos on one side:

The Gildersleeve
Bespoke Apartment Homes
Starting at $200,000

Huh? What the hell did that mean? (I made up the word “Gildersleeve” and the price, but it’s a species of ad we see a lot of here, on bus stop signs and elsewhere.) To my recall, “bespoke” was a verb. Not one you see often, and when you do see it, it’s usually where somebody is trying to sound old-timey. I do not recall ever seeing it used as an adjective.

I grabbed my 1936 New Century Dictionary, which is my closest dictionary and within arm’s reach. It simply said, “Preterit and past participle of bespeak.” Looking up to the entry for “bespeak,” all definitions were as verbs, and the one of interest was “to give evidence of or indicate; fortell.” Ok, sure. That’s how I understood it. Nothing about condos. I had to go down the hall to fetch my 1974 New World Dictionary. Here, “bespoke” had its own separate entry. Its first meaning was the same as New Century had it. The second meaning, as an adjective, meant “custom or custom-made; making or made to order.” The entry did tag this usage as “British.”

Heh. Not anymore, evidently. (At least with respect to condos.)

So the matter rested until a few nights ago, while I was curled up in Chairzilla reading Poul Anderson’s The Boat of a Million Years. Early in Chapter VI, Poul writes:

“A short, somewhat tubby man with a pug nose and a scraggly beard turning gray, he was given to self-importance. Yet leathery skin bespoke many years of faring, often through danger, and goodly garb told of success won by it.”

Like I said, old-timey. The odd thing about all this is that now, at 69, and having read untold numbers of books since I learned to read at 4, I have no recall whatsoever of seeing “bespoke” used as an adjective, to describe condos or anything else. Ever. This is odd. Hell, I used to read the dictionary for fun. My father told me early on when he bought me my first dictionary (I might have been eight or so) “Every time you look up a word in the dictionary, read the whole page.” And I did. After that, nobody at school could beat me at vocabulary or spelling.

Running across a use of a word so different from the one I knew was jarring. I take some comfort in the adjective form being a Britishism. After all, they call car hoods “bonnets” and trunks “boots.” They spell jail “gaol,” which somehow sounds Halloweenish, or at least mildly diabolical. There are plenty of examples beyond that.

In poking around online, I see the word used a lot in custom tailoring, as in “a bespoke suit.” This seems peculiar. A custom-tailored suit does not give evidence of its being custom-made (I have one) so it does not bespeak anything. Yet it is bespoke.

Sigh. No wonder my Polish grandparents never learned to (be)speak English.

14 Comments

  1. TRX says:

    “Bespoke” is a common word in the British clothing and race-car industries; it means the same as “custom” in the US. Took me a while to figure it out in the pre-Internet days, though. It’s still in common use today.

    I don’t recall ever seeing it in any other context.

    1. In my readings, “bespoke” was generally used in older settings, and I was generally more interested in fiction set in the future. I never had any interest in race cars. Nor clothing, beyond what I needed to keep myself presentable. I still think the notion of a “bespoke condo” is ridiculous. It probably means, You get to pick the paint.

      1. Len says:

        I think the concept might actually work in science fiction, as an orbital platform with a standardized “bus” or buses that owners plug their own residential modules into – either of their own design or
        bought from a company that sells a variety of standard ones.

        (my first thought when I read your post was about a variation on Moshe Safdie’s “Habitat 67”, but if somebody tried that again I’m sure it would get some publicity)

        1. Thanks for that! It’s a cool enough concept that I may use it in my current novel.

  2. Tom Hanlin says:

    I’m slightly baffled. “Bespoke” is a relatively common British term meaning “custom”, usually in reference to fancy tailored-from-scratch suits, as in “pick the fabrics, we’ll make it for you to your measurements”. That’s not its sole usage.

    I recall Neal Stephenson using it in, I think, “Snow Crash” for some custom tech.

    1. Don’t be baffled. The whole point to this entry is that I’ve lived as a voracious reader for 65 years and don’t recall ever seeing the word used as an adjective. It’s one of those unlikely statistical flukes that happen now and then. Poul Anderson uses it several times in The Boat of a Million Years and on thinking back I’ve seen it used (as a verb) in a few other places, but never as an adjective. As they say, What are the chances?!?!?

  3. Jim Strickland says:

    Definitely Brit-slang, but trending these days in place of “custom.” My guess for reasons why would be snobbishness. Your monster truck may have custom leather seats, but my condo is bespoke. I suspect we all watch a lot of British youtube.

  4. Now, if I were to see an ad like that, my reaction would be, “No sense inquiring about those, because they’re already spoken for. Why even bother to advertise?”

    (And “Gildersleeve” brings forth images of Harold Peary!)

    1. Indeed. The Great Gildersleeve himself! I never heard any of his radio shows (and he was not on the TV show, IIRC) but I always loved that very pompous, full-of-himself name, which was a perfect fit for the character.

      1. If I’m on a long drive somewhere (and as a square dance caller, I take a lot of long drives), the XM Radio Classics channel is a great companion, and The Great Gildersleeve is one of their staples. It’s not my favorite, but nearly all of the shows they play are enjoyable in one way or another.

  5. Keith says:

    I see that several people have mentioned the use of bespoke as an adjective in the clothing and auto racing worlds. I expected to see someone mention that it has come into fairly common use as an adjective in the computer hardware and computer software businesses. At least I have seen it fairly often in articles about those areas. In that realm, I always have understood from context that it meant a product that was given the same name as the company that was producing the product, but I may have taken the wrong meaning. I never consulted a dictionary about it.

  6. Michael Black says:

    Tom Swift bespoked his space station, adding a spoke for broadcast tv, one for manufacturing, another for science.

  7. James Cook says:

    I have heard “bespoke” used referring to custom made firearms, particularly shotguns custom made for an individual.

  8. Bob Halloran says:

    I’ve seen bespoke used of late in software development to mean “developed in-house” vs. using some off-the-shelf vendor package; again a British idiom applied domestically. Cross-pollination from UK execs working here?

    Watching the Harry Potter movies with my kids, I did hear Dumbledore mention “giving my custom” to one of the pubs on Diagon Alley, which I understood as another British idiom where Americans would say “giving my business to…”

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