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.)
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,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.