Time to bespeak up and defend the language

We live in interesting times.

Last week, it was reported that the Advertising Standards Authority had decreed that the word “bespoke” could now be used to describe suits that weren’t entirely handmade.

Moustache quivering in indignation, I went over to Wikipedia to see what it said about the word “bespoke”:

Bespoke is usually a British English term for tailored clothing made at a customer’s behest, and exactly to the customer’s specification. Bespoke clothing is created without use of a pre-existing pattern, differentiating it from made to measure, which alters a standard-sized pattern to fit the customer.

I’ve known a number of bespoke tailors over the years; one of them, Thomas Mahon, even has his own blog. I count him as a friend, so I thought I’d go and check him out, see if he had anything to say about the subject. And this is what I found:

A lot of people use the terms “bespoke” and “made-to-measure” interchangeably. They are mistaken.

‘Bespoke’ is actually a term which dates from the 17th century, when tailors held the full lengths of cloth in their premises.

When a customer chose a length of material, it was said to have “been spoken for”. Hence a tailor who makes your clothes individually, to your specific personal requirements, is called “bespoke”. This is unlike “made-to-measure”, which simply uses a basic, pre-existing template pattern, which is then adjusted to roughly your individual measurements.

What the ASA has done is in effect allowing the nice distinctions between phrases like “bespoke” and “made-to-measure” to disappear, and for no good reason. Language does evolve, and we need to be adaptable about it. But that does not mean we have to do stupid things with language. Allowing “made-to-measure” and “bespoke” to be used synonymously is inaccurate and unnecessary. It is the equivalent of allowing yogurt to be called vegetarian while containing beef gelatin. Strange world we live in.

Even more strange when you consider the other craftsmen that use the word “bespoke”. Software engineers. Ironic, isn’t it? People buy software they call “off-the-shelf”, then mangle it amazingly beyond recognition. This happens constantly in the ERP and SCM markets.

But they don’t dare call it bespoke. Because their CFO knows that “bespoke” is also a synonym for “expensive.” They might as well call the software bespoke, given the level of changes they tend to make, but they don’t.

One group of people who use patterns when they shouldn’t, and they want to call a suit bespoke when it isn’t.

Another group of people who don’t use patterns when they should, and they don’t want to call software bespoke when it is.

Go figure.

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