Collins Language

Blogs from the Collins Language team in Glasgow, UK.

Monday, 18 August 2008

August 2008

bespoke adj chiefly Brit 1 (esp of clothing or a website, computer program, etc) made to the customer's specifications 2 making such products: a bespoke tailor

As editors of the Collins English Dictionary, we try to be open-minded about the development of our mother tongue. We do our best to welcome change as the sign of a growing language in rude health. And while I've yet to hear anyone in the team talk about leveraging one thing or architecting the other, this sort of stuff is generally noted with interest rather than irritation. But we wouldn't be human if one or two words didn't rub us up the wrong way. Until recently, my personal bugbear was the ubiquitous use of the word bespoke outside the world of high-end tailoring. To tell the truth, there was even something annoying about it in its 'proper' sartorial context.

So I had to put my prejudice aside for a while when a journalist called to get a lexicographic slant on the word, for an article about a legal spat on Savile Row. A group of traditional 'bespoke' tailors had tried to stop a less well-established gentlemen's outfitter from describing their suits and their service as bespoke too. Their gripe was that, while the younger company did take customers' measurements in the normal way, they then used computerized machines – rather than scissors, needle, and thread – to cut and stitch the cloth. A bespoke suit, they argued, had to be made entirely by hand. The Advertising Standards Agency, however, didn't agree. They ruled that, at bottom, bespoke simply meant 'made to order', and that the Savile Row tailors (and, by extension, people like me) were clinging to their own outdated and too-narrow definition.

Nowadays, my new favourite word is used to describe anything that can be made to a customer's specifications, be it a cake, a holiday, or a huge industrial smelter. Indeed the Collins Bank of English, our huge database of real-life examples of modern English, shows that bespoke now has a stronger relationship, statistically speaking, with the words application, solution, and database than it does with suit, shirt, or shoe. 'The idiots are winning', I thought as the figures came on screen, but when I looked into the history of the term I was surprised to discover that in 1755, a good century before the denizens of Savile Row and Jermyn Street made it their own, bespoke was being applied to something as incorporeal as a play, written to order. And a play has as at least much in common with a website, a database, or even, God help us, a solution, as it does with a poplin shirt.

Greivous errers
Punctuation was all the rage a couple of years ago, but the hot linguistic topic of the moment seems to be spelling, and two stories in the papers last week illustrated polar views on it. The first concerned a professor of criminology appealing for a simplification of English spellings, so fed up was he with correcting the same errors again and again in his students' essays and exam scripts. His contention was that we should start to accept common misspellings as variants rather than mistakes – truely for truly, and so on – with the aim of establishing more easily followed conventions. An interesting idea, but not a popular one, at least if the letters pages of the broadsheets are to be believed.

In 1828 Noah Webster, the father of American lexicography, tried with some success to iron out some of the idiosyncrasies of English spelling with his American Dictionary of English Spelling, but even he only scratched the surface. There are still plenty of throughs, toughs and woulds in US English. My feeling is that, even if you'd want to risk losing some of the charm and precision of our great language, it's too late to try to impose any new rules on it – it's too big, too fluid for that. Spellings will change, as will grammar, but it will be down to evolution rather than engineering.

In the second of the week's orthographic stories, Judge David Paget came down firmly on the other side of the argument (or arguement?) in the Old Bailey. He angrily declared a court official who had repeatedly misspelled the word grievous to be an "illiterate idiot". A bit harsh, surely. In sympathy with the illiterate idiot, I've compiled a list of very common words that the Bank of English tells us are often misspelled, even in the broadsheets:


Cormac McKeown - Senior Editor


  • At 25 November 2008 at 19:37 , Blogger cathalsread said...

    Dear Cormac,

    This is not a response to the current entry, but I can't find an entry remarking on the impending entry of 'meh' into the Collins Dictionary, so I thought this would be the easiest way to get a message to you.

    I notice that Collins is planning on using the explanation 'The Canadian election was meh'. That's not OK! Don't you think that's a bit mean? It would be like giving an explanation for 'hammered' (drunk) as 'The Irish man was absolutely hammered'. It's just not nice. It reinforces stereotypes and at worst perpetuates a problem. Don't you think Collins should avoid making generalizations that reinforce negative stereotypes of peoples. (Irish as drunks, Canadians as boring, Americans as loudmouthed, etc).

    Anyhow, I've never heard of anyone using the phrase as an adjective ("it was a meh election"? doesn't sound right to me)...

    Cathal O Madagain (Irishman in Canada).

  • At 16 December 2008 at 12:36 , Blogger Korschmin said...

    Hello and 'Meh'...

    I am anaspeptic, phrasmotic even compunctuous for the Collins English Dictionary to have caused such periconbobulations.

    I think Cormac McKeown head of “Dictionary’s” content, should retract this dribble interphrastically!

    Yours with contrafibularities,


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