What does ‘be­spoke’ mean, any­way?

Robb Report Singapore - - Opinion -

While we’re not go­ing to re­sort to the hack­neyed dic­tio­nary method here, it is im­por­tant to try to de­fine what ‘be­spoke’ truly is, given it’s the com­mon thread unit­ing the vast ma­jor­ity of this is­sue’s con­tent. A decade ago, Bri­tish et­y­mol­o­gist Michael Quin­ion re­searched the word’s ori­gins and wrote, “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 16th 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 18th cen­tury.”

Quin­ion as­serts that a com­mon be­lief about be­spoke’s prove­nance is in­cor­rect. “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,” he wrote. “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.”

Nev­er­the­less, one of the first steps in com­mis­sion­ing a be­spoke suit is in­deed the se­lec­tion of a cloth and ‘be­speak­ing’ (in the sense of “en­gag­ing a per­son to do a job, or or­der­ing goods”) your spe­cific de­sires, which the tai­lor will then use as his guide in craft­ing the gar­ment. To qual­ify as au­then­tic be­spoke, a suit can­not sim­ply be a vari­a­tion on a pre-ex­ist­ing block (that’s what is known as made-to-mea­sure): it has to be cre­ated from scratch

One of the lazi­est de­vices used to kick-start an ed­i­tor’s

let­ter is to take the is­sue’s theme and de­fine it. Per­haps

the say­ing, “It’s called fash­ion, look it up,” arose from ex­hausted ed­i­tors, in the process of wrap­ping

their hefty Septem­ber ‘Style’ is­sues, do­ing ex­actly that. (“What is ‘fash­ion’?

Ac­cord­ing to Mer­ri­amWeb­ster’s, fash­ion is blah blah blah…” You know the

drill, no doubt.)

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