Cultural Studies: Bespoke This, Bespoke That. Enough Already.

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Cultural Studies: Bespoke This, Bespoke That. Enough Already.

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Last summer, the director Paul Riccio made a satirical video short about a groundbreaking new product referred to as bespoke water.

It featured a pair of bearded Brooklyn hipsters, the Timmy Brothers, who, in righteous tones, announced that “corporate water is soulless. Our water” — sourced from places like Lake Pontchartrain and the East River — “is about freedom and independence. It has an Emersonian spirit about it.”

Imagine the director’s surprise when, after the film’s release, “inquiries started coming in from Europe about how to import the product,” Mr. Riccio said. “I wish we had a supply on hand, because people actually wanted to buy bespoke water.”

Maybe it was the name. The B word has become an increasingly common branding lure employed by interior design companies, publishers, surgeons and pornographers. There are bespoke wines, bespoke software, bespoke vacations, bespoke barber shops, bespoke insurance plans, bespoke yoga, bespoke tattoos, even bespoke medical implants.

“There has been a distinct fashion for it,” said Michael Quinion, an etymologist who has studied the word’s usage. “At this point, it’s really over the top.”

For much of the last century, bespoke referred almost exclusively to men’s tailored suits, a practice idealized by the fine, and pricey, craftsmen and women of Savile Row in London.

The word itself, which dates from 1583, is a past participle of bespeak, chiefly British, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and is defined as “(of goods, especially clothing) made to order.”

After the Industrial Revolution, Mr. Quinion said, it became a descriptor of specially commissioned products distinct from the mass-produced, ready-made kind.

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Though the term began in Britain, Americans have savored its snob appeal. “Americans associate it with the British upper class,” said Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University.

At the same time, she said, the idea behind the word plays into something deeply American: “Our individualism. We want everything made special for us. Even when it comes to salad bars.”

Also, the word “sounds old-fashioned and traditional,” Ms. Tannen said, naming two qualities common to the hipsterish faith that earlier generations did things in a more natural, and so, more righteous, way.

“It’s part of the authenticity hoax,” Mr. Riccio said.

Along the way, the term’s meaning has become muddled. For a party hosted by the music public relations firm Shore Fire Media, the invitation advertised “bespoke cocktails.” But the drinks weren’t tailored to the individual. Guests could choose from several predetermined concoctions.

A popular new restaurant in the West Village, Bespoke Kitchen, may allow diners to choose their own protein and flavor profile (rich or light), but from there, the chef makes most of the decisions. Diners also have the option of leaving the composition of their meal entirely up to the chef — the exact opposite of a bespoke experience.

With so elastic a definition, it’s small wonder one British food blogger wryly identified Burger King as the first “bespoke” restaurant, because it has allowed special orders for decades. (“Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce,” went its jingle.)

The term’s usage by interior design companies and financial investment firms, which is now common, strikes Mr. Quinion as redundant. “It would be very difficult to do that kind of work without it being ‘bespoke,’” he said.

Ms. Tannen called the new mutability of the word an example of “semantic drift.” “The meaning of the term slides from its core meaning to meanings that are associated,” she said.

Along the way, bespoke has devolved from a unique experience to simply a synonym for another catchword of the day: artisanal. At the root of it all may be money, Mr. Riccio said.

“One thing’s for sure,” he said. “Calling something bespoke automatically allows you to add $50 to the price.”

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