“Bespoke” Does a 180

The other day I spotted this display of neckties in a local department store, Kohl’s.

To be clear, these ties are pretty much the opposite of “bespoke” — they’re mass-produced, of middling quality, and sold in bulk in a department store, for pete’s sake. Brings to mind what Humpty-Dumpty told Alice in Through the Looking Glass — “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” I reckon we’re living in a Lewis Carroll world.

20 thoughts on ““Bespoke” Does a 180

  1. …..now I’d have thought that in that context, ‘Bespoke’ was the brand name.
    Nothing at all connected to unique, one-offs.
    A pair of naff ties not to be seen dead in……………

      1. Thanks, Ben!
        That shows what I know about ties – it’s a long, long way from Ceredigion to the World of Kohl.

        I used to make and carve wooden furniture entirely by hand……. each piece was different, but I never used the word ‘Bespoke’………. lost its pedigree in that context long ago.

  2. Indeed we are living in a Lewis Carroll world. I see examples frequently and share them with the Facebook group, “The Miserly Linguists.”

    One that always comes immediately to mind is “decimate.” Perhaps you covered it during my years of absence from your blog due to email address confusion, or even before, although it doesn’t IMHO really fit into the NOOB category. Decimate has gone from the original “to kill one in every ten” in Roman times to “kill, destroy, or remove a large percentage or part of” in modern times, i.e., nearly equivalent to “devastate.”

      1. Hal, it is, so thanks for asking.

        How am I? I’m finally, after about six years, in the process of moving from Austin to Rosenberg. Joey (cat) and I moved last month and my household goods should move next month. This month, I’m in the process of replacing my suite of healthcare providers.

        That hah15, formerly part of an email address I used here, now routes to my own WordPress blog (you inspired me), hardly used since I established it in 2016, but recently activated with a new purpose, however, still with inadequate time to use fully.

        Now, to your M-W article.

        I, for one, am not among those who claim that the original meaning in Roman times “is the only correct meaning today.” The reason I continue to complain about language modernists using “decimate” to mean to “kill, destroy, or remove a large percentage or part of,” especially the shift in meaning from a small percentage to a large percentage, is that a) I don’t mind expanding it from Roman soldiers to whatever (e.g., natural disasters), and b) expanding it from small to large closely duplicates the meanings of “annihilate”† and as I pointed out earlier, “devastate,” two perfectly adequate English words to express a large number, so we don’t need a third. (What, now, suggests a small number?)

        “People love to complain about ‘decimate’, but they’re wrong. Our language includes many words which originally had a specific historical meaning, all of which mean something different in English.” True, but I’m not familiar with any so egregious as this one. My problems with their citing of “sinister” is, again, two-fold: a) it’s current meaning long-precedes my existence, so I’ve for the most part never known any other meaning, and b) it’s current meaning, I believe, evolved at least in part due to prejudice against left-handed people, one of the worst possible motives.

        Unfortunately, I don’t know how to attach distinctive and separate meanings to words looked up in Google Ngram, e.g., left-handed vs. evil: https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=sinister&year_start=1800&year_end=2019&corpus=28&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Csinister%3B%2Cc0#t1%3B%2Csinister%3B%2Cc0

        “Another problem with insisting that decimate should have but a single meaning is that very few words in English retain but a single meaning.” Again, I’m not insisting on a single (i.e., the original) meaning. As noted, I support, even encourage, expanding the meaning from soldiers to other entities, just not from small to large. My objection is based not on the original meaning about Roman soldiers, but on the word root, “deci-.” Whether Latin or English is no matter to me. In that regard, it’s merely a matter of translation, not ancient vs. contemporary usage.

        As for the other examples cited toward and at the end of the article, I could have additional comments on some of those, but all I’ll say at this point is, “Okay, You’ve made your point.” And, I believe, I’ve made mine, as well.

        Finally, don’t worry. As a septuagenarian, I shan’t be a complainer about this issue for all that much longer, one fewer among the “small but committed group of linguistic enthusiasts who feel that it is often misused.” 😉

        † I agree with the commenter to the article, “There is no reason for the synonyms to be laid out making ‘decimate’ the equivalent of ‘annihilate.”)

    1. (HAH15, this is actually in response to your own reply further down the thread, but it won’t let me reply directly to that one.)

      You wrote: “My problems with their citing of ‘sinister’ is, again, two-fold: a) it’s current meaning long-precedes my existence, so I’ve for the most part never known any other meaning…”

      Decimate has had its current meaning of “to destroy the greater part of” since at least 1663 (only 63 years after its earliest appearance in English in the original Roman sense). So unless you’re far older than you’re letting on, decimate‘s current meaning long precedes your existence, also.

      1. Well, Dave, when I clicked on the notice of your comment in my email, I landed here where your comment doesn’t appear to me; so, I don’t know where it is and have no idea if you’ll be seeing this.

        First, I think the reason you couldn’t reply directly to the comment you wanted to is because here on WordPress, nesting goes only so many levels deep, a trait it shares with some other web sites.

        Second, good point.

    2. The change of usage that irritates me the most is “riff.” It always used to mean a repeated phrase or figure in music (ostinato). Today’s trendy young journalists have changed the meaning to the opposite: improvisation. When I see a comedy review that states “He was riffing on the subject of food” my first thought is the comic was telling the same joke over and over again.

  3. Well, we’re living in a world in which everything is “very unique” — so no surprise that mass-manufactured ties are bespoke.

  4. And here I always thought, per “The Twilight Zone,” that “bespoke” meant “betrothed.” Perhaps this is a line of ties for people to use to celebrate an engagement?

  5. There’s a Bespoke in downtown San Francisco that calls itself “a collection of tech-forward spaces, tailored for in-person inspiration.” In other words, co-working cubicles.
    https://bespokesf.co/

    1. Historically, it’s been product names that have become generic in the language. Ones with which we’re all familiar include Frigidaire, Kodak, and many others.

      Here we have an example of appropriation of English words by tech companies for their own purposes and their own meanings that has been going on for decades. Windows. Apple. Google (after Googol). Yahoo (coined in 1726 by Jonathan Swift). It goes on.

      This list calls out a specific subset, those taken from nature: https://orionmagazine.org/article/10-words-technology-borrowed-from-nature/

  6. There’s been an intermediate stage, during which the word “bespoke” (originally indicating an item of clothing that’s designed and made from scratch for an individual client) was downgraded to mean the same as “made-to-measure” (a standard pattern adapted to the client’s measurements and preferences).

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