When Jan Freeman noted on Twitter that she had heard an NPR correspondent use purpose-built, I was momentarily befuddled. Not only did I not know the phrase was a Britishism, I also kind of didn’t know what it meant. Merriam-Webster informed me that the phrase is an adjective meaning “designed and built for a particular use,” adding “chiefly British.” A Google Ngram chart confirmed this, and also that American use is on the rise. (The blue line represents British use, the red line American.)

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The New York Times has used purpose-built about 300 times in its history, first in 1929 in a reference to “purpose-built taxicabs.” But things have picked up lately: there have been 49 purpose-builts in the Times in 2012 and 2013 alone. Most of them, interestingly, refer to cars or some car-related things, as in the most recent reference, on November 15, 2013: “After an absence of half a decade from the United States, Formula One returned last year with a Grand Prix at the first purpose-built circuit in the country.” But art critic Michael Kimmelman this year described a Tuscan vineyard as “purpose-built nature  on a very large scale” and columnist Paul Krugman, a serial NOOBer, argued against gerrymandering, writing, “Let’s stop allowing the parties to pick their voters (and put them into purpose-built districts).”

I’m still a little befuddled by purpose-built. One commenter on the Merriam-Webster definition (and since when have definitions had commenters?) said the phrase was frequently superfluous, noting, “One uses ‘purpose-built’ as an adjective to differentiate between items that were built for a reason and items that were built for no reason at all”–the implication being that very few things are built for no reason at all. (Another commenter noted, “Marketing buzzward.” I like the way they think, though not necessarily their spelling.)

But on reflection, and on examination of the Times items above, I can see that the phrase is occasionally useful and apt, especially when you consider the alternative. That’s right, I’m talking about bespoke.

20 thoughts on ““Purpose-built”

  1. I don’t think it is superfluous at all. it is very useful, especially when referring to buildings, something that is hinted at in your blog. For example, there is a big difference between a purpose-built hotel and a hotel that is basically a converted former home or castle. This would relate to the design of the rooms, the plumbing, whether it had air-conditioning or not, access for cars or for guests with mobility problems, etc. All of these things would have been taken into consideration when constructing a hotel from scratch. There might be many problems associated with converting an older building for the purpose (e.g. no room for a lift).

  2. Purpose-built is quite useful, and in no way synonymous with bespoke.

    Something purpose-built could be mass-produced – like the purpose-built taxicabs in that 1929 citation you reference. That would refer to cars designed specifically for use as taxis – such as one sees in London, and not mass-market cars equipped with taximeters and other accoutrements of the taxi trade after purchase. Such as one typically sees in New York, for example. (I believe the old Checker cabs were purpose-built.)

    If something is “bespoke” it is made for a specific-user; bespoke and mass-produced contradict one another.

  3. I’ve typically seen the term used in connection with furniture, not conveyances. I’ve taken it’s meaning to be in opposition to “mass-produced.”

    1. No – it’s not in opposition to mass-produced. Office chairs, for example are purpose-built – they’re not meant to be used as general purpose chairs – they’re specifically designed for the use of an office worker at a desk.

      A custom-made (or bespoke) tennis shoe would be one made to the measurements of a specific tennis player’s feet and according to her preferences. But if the people at Nike or Adidas got it into their heads to design a tennis shoe specifically for playing on grass, rather than any other surface, and mass-produced that item in their usual array of size and color options, that would be a purpose-built shoe for grass courts.

      1. Yes, but in terms of actual usage, my sense is that it isn’t all that common to use the term purpose built office chair or tennis shoe. It’s not often used of products in that way. One reason is that it is obvious that an office chair or a tennis shoe is made for a specific purpose.

        Where the term is most often used is in connection with buying and selling flats. It is useful in that context because some people want to buy flats in houses which have been converted into flats, while others will only consider flats which were built as flats in a building commonly called a block of flats. So in advertising property for sale, a flat is referred to either as a purpose-built flat or a flat in a purpose-built block, while the other type is called a converted flat.

  4. I agree. A very useful term. One may sit upon a rock, but a chair is purpose-built for that activity. Any structure can be made into a museum, but a structure with the necessary security, HVAC, etc. needed to preserve sensitive artwork would rightly be called “purpose-built.” The more complex the characteristics of the item, the more likely we can call it such.

  5. In Britain there is an enormous number of large houses which have been split into flats in order for the owners to profit from modern lifestyles. When I tell my estate agent to find me a flat, I can quickly and simply specify whether I want a converted flat (has character but I can hear the neighbours) or a purpose-built flat (smaller, more modern, like life in a filing cabinet). I cannot think of a more compact and economical term that does the job so well.

  6. “One uses ‘purpose-built’ as an adjective to differentiate between items that were built for a reason and items that were built for no reason at all”

    No ‘one’ doesn’t!

    Reason and purpose are not the same.

    The reason Apple builds computers is to make a profit for its shareholders; the purpose of its computers is to do wonderful things.

    Laptops/Tablets are purpose-built to be portable, that is the purpose of building them compact and lightweight, so they are easy to carry. Desktops can also be carried around, but they were not purpose-built to be carried around.

    In my schooldays we wound wire around the physics lab radiator and attached it to a wireless receiver. The radiator acted as an aerial but it was not a purpose-built one.

    Purpose-built = built to fulfil a specific, rather than universal purpose or be adapted or converted from something else.


  7. Something purpose-built was built for the purpose it still has, not just “for a purpose”. A purpose-built hotel was built to be a hotel; it ceases to be purpose-built when it ceases to be a hotel. If it’s turned into a department store, it is not a purpose-built department store, despite the fact that it was built with “a purpose”.

  8. Usage example: The Amazon Kindle is a purpose-built e-book reader while the Kindle Fire is a general purpose tablet that can be used as an e-reader.

    The Kindle is mass-produced it is also purpose-built. Bespoke would be more custom-built.

    1. Yes, those are good examples. Gaming consoles such as the XBox etc. are all examples of computers that are purpose-built for gaming, and not meant as general-purpose computers.

      Custom-built (or custom-made, or bespoke – all of those terms being synonymous) means made for a particular customer.

      Purpose-built means made for a particular purpose. We don’t often call out things as being purpose-built, because it’s so common to design things that way. But every once in a while it’s useful to point it out.

  9. See also: The Purpose-Driven Life. Pastor Rick Warren’s widely read book has made the construction very popular among Christian circles, practically a household word. Not exactly the same, but helps to encourage it.

  10. Bespoke is not the same as purpose built. Bespoke comes from the old verb to ‘bespeak’ and therefore refers to something that has been ‘bespoken’ or ordered by a specific person. E.g., one might bespeak a room at an inn or a meal or a piece of clothing or indeed almost anything. It refers nowadays to something that has been specifically requested by someone. Have to go now as a brass band is playing out side my door – one which I did not bespeak.

  11. I just used this term in a sentence for the first time, but I felt compelled to explain it to my American audience. “The screen cover for my…TV came with the TV. I had to buy the manufacturer’s purpose-built base separately (i.e., the base that fit the irregular angles of the TV case exactly).”

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