After the fun of Are you stupid enough to use leverage as a verb? (in which you added well-considered perspectives on the evolution of language to my fairly bald argument of that’s one ugly word) I’m going to have to break my silence about the word bespoke.
Bespoke is another ugly word, this time an adjective, as in:
We provide bespoke software solutions
It is not common in US English, but is increasingly found in Britain being used to describe services, especially in IT. It is traditionally a tailoring term, coming from the archaic verb bespeak, indicating speaking about or arranging something in advance.
Tailors have used it for centuries to describe suits that are hand-made to an individual’s measurements, as opposed to off the peg, pre-cut garments. Originally, the term described the process whereby a piece of cloth would be reserved for an individual customer. It suggested craft, care and unique personalisation. More recently, it has broadened in tailoring to imply anything that is made to measure.
I would happily enter a bespoke tailor’s and buy a bespoke suit (if I could afford it). What I object to is people taking this old-fashioned word that has been so long allied to one profession and applying it liberally to anything else that they think might in some way be adaptable for their customers. Just search Google for ‘bespoke solutions’ and you’ll see what I mean.
Some dictionaries have picked up on this trend, not least the Oxford English Dictionary. But I’m going to dig my heels in and say that’s enough, for the following reasons:
Quite a lot of people don’t know what it means
Ask a few people who aren’t language students or IT professionals what bespoke means and you will draw a few blank expressions. Some of the people I have asked got the connection to tailoring. Others didn’t know at all. If you are looking for ways to describe how your service works to new customers, I would suggest using words that they do not understand is a bad idea.
Especially if they are not British
If you want your website to be comprehended by English speakers outside of the UK, then picking such localised terms will not help. It is fine to have a British tone and personality (if being British is important to your brand), but you do not want your international readers to be reaching for the dictionary to try and decode even the basics about what your business does.
Bespoke is ugly out of context
It is a strange word. Words with the prefix be– have a dated sound to them. It is not a common way to form words in modern English, especially combined with spoke which is the past of a verb. The original verb bespeak has little modern usage. When it comes to suits, this unusual, old sound chimes perfectly with the image of generations of tailors on Savile Row crafting garments to the same exacting standards. But to describe your software or cake company? It just sounds weird.
It is losing potency as a metaphor
Bespoke is an evocative metaphor from tailoring, provided people know what it means. But the more marketers use it to describe anything that is in some vague way customised for the client, the more it loses the richness of the association. It not only fails Orwell’s freshness test but is a case in point for finding ‘an everyday English equivalent‘.
See: customised, custom-made, purpose-built, tailored, made-to-measure, specially designed.
As with leverage it is not just the ugly, contorted formation of bespoke that I object to. It is its weakness as a metaphor: not only that it is ailing, but that many people simply don’t know what it means in the first place. The question of how language progresses aside, it strikes me that if you want to describe your product or service to potential customers in favourable terms, then those terms should be clear and fresh.
Bespoke joins leverage in my dead pool of abused words. Any reason I should fish it out?