Q: I was driving in the Grand Rapids area the other day and noticed a sign for “bespoke homes.” I’d only heard “bespoke” used in British tailoring contexts and didn’t know it was imported. How long before we have bespoke hamburgers or bespoke Air Jordans?
A: Yes, the adjective “bespoke” is more common in the UK than in the US. And it usually refers to custom-made clothing. But the word is evolving—in American as well as British English. In fact, “bespoke burgers” and “bespoke running shoes” have already shown up in both the US and the UK.
Here are a few American examples we’ve found:
“Samsung’s Bespoke Appliances Bring Custom Color And Coordination To Your Home” (Forbes, May 13, 2021).
“How to Buy a Bespoke Shotgun. A custom-fitted shotgun is expensive, but if you can afford one, it will become a family legacy to be handed down from one generation to the next” (Outdoor Life, May 20, 2021).
“Bespoke Bathing: Say the words ‘carbon fiber’ and you’ve got an aficionado’s full attention. That’s no surprise, as this sleek material is used in supercars, aircraft and top-end sports equipment … and now tubs” (Brickell Magazine, Miami, Dec. 27, 2018).
“Decadent Dogs and Bespoke Burgers at Riley’s” (Hartford Courant, Nov. 17, 2014).
“Adidas Wants to Create Bespoke Running Shoes Using 3-D Printing” (Racked, Oct 7, 2015).
And now here are some British examples :
“Duchess of Cornwall shares her bespoke recipe for a Victoria Sponge—with a twist” (from a recipe for sponge cake in The Independent, Sept. 2, 2011).
“In recent years, there has been a growing trend in bespoke burgers, with themed restaurants cooking them to provide the ultimate laid-back dine out experience” (Somerset Live, a website covering news, entertainment and sports in Somerset, Dorset, and Wiltshire, Aug. 24, 2021).
“software experts dedicated to designing bespoke software for one-off applications” (Reading Evening Post, June 24, 1980).
“Adidas Futurecraft 3D Wants to Print You a Pair of Bespoke Running Shoes in Store” (an Oct. 7, 2015, post on the website ManyMiles).
“With over 40 models on display you’ll be sure to find a style to suit you. Standard Range and Bespoke. Garden Sheds • Summer Houses • Gazebos • Garages • Greenhouses • Conservatories, etc.” (West Briton and Cornwall Advertiser, June, 17, 1999).
All of the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult define the adjective “bespoke” as meaning custom-made. Two of them, (American Heritage and Dictionary.com) say it refers especially to clothing, while two others (Collins and Longman) include websites and computer software along with clothes.
Most of the published examples the standard dictionaries provide describe clothing, but quite a few others suggest that the term has outgrown its apparel etymology.
Cambridge, for instance, cites “bespoke furniture” and Macmillan “bespoke software.” Merriam-Webster notes the online use of “a very bespoke approach” to high-end real estate.
Lexico, an online dictionary using the resources of Oxford University Press, has examples in both its US and UK editions for “bespoke kitchens,” “bespoke software systems,” “bespoke itineraries,” “bespoke leather sofas,” even “a bespoke craftsman boatbuilder.”
Though the use of “bespoke” for things other than clothing may seem odd to you, the earliest example for the usage in the Oxford English Dictionary refers to a commissioned play—one ordered in advance—for a performance by a touring theatrical troupe:
“At length the bespoke Play was to be enacted” (A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Charlotte Charke, 1755, an autobiography by the actress, playwright, and novelist). The book also uses “bespoke” as a verb meaning to commission: “the Gentleman bespoke a Play.”
As Merriam-Webster explains in an etymology note, “In the English language of yore, the verb bespeak had various meanings, including ‘to speak,’ ‘to accuse,’ and ‘to complain.’ In the 16th century, bespeak acquired another meaning—‘to order or arrange in advance.’
“It is from that sense that we get the adjective bespoke, referring to clothes and other things that are ordered before they are made,” M-W continues. “You are most likely to encounter this adjective in British contexts, such as the recent Reuters news story about a young pig in Northern England who was fitted with ‘bespoke miniature footwear’ (custom-made Wellington boots) to help it overcome a phobia of mud.”