The synthetic CDOs that caused the trouble were expensive bespoke instruments that were very profitable for the banks involved – JPMorgan was paid $19m to structure and market the Squared CDO alone before it got stuck with $880m in unanticipated losses

I know the definition is to be or give a sign of; indicate. See synonyms of indicate.

But it doesn't make a lot of sense.


  • 4
    I was similarly perplexed by this word when I was in England a month ago. I eventually figured out from context that it means "custom" or "custom-made". It appears to be strictly a Britishism; I have never, ever encountered it on this side of the pond.
    – JPmiaou
    Jun 23, 2011 at 15:02
  • The definition you give is of the verb bespeak, of which bespoke is the past participle. However in this sentence bespoke is being used as an adjective, not a verb. Sometimes you will get related meanings from different parts of speech, but this isn't one of those occasions.
    – user1579
    Jun 23, 2011 at 15:27
  • One American writer who has used it is Neal Stephenson. You'll find it sprinkled through his novel The Diamond Age and used in reference to software engineers. The Diamond Age is about a neo-Victorian culture of the future, so it makes sense that he'd use a Britishism. However, I've seen that some programmers have now adopted the term from his novel.
    – kindall
    Jun 23, 2011 at 16:06
  • @JPmiaou I have come across it many times in Australia but is not that common. I know enough people who do not know what it means that I would be selective when using it. "Custom" or "custom made" seems to work better.
    – dave
    Jun 23, 2011 at 19:10
  • @kindall: The Diamond Age was first published in 1995, but in the UK bespoke software was in common use since long before that. I doubt Neal Stephenson's book had any effect on usage in the UK, which he was merely reflecting anyway. Jun 24, 2011 at 2:38

3 Answers 3


The dictionary gives an interesting meaning of "bespoke":

"custom or custom-made, made to order," of goods, as distinguished from ready-made

So, "bespoke" used this way means "made to order", and the instruments were custom-made. This can be seen by the later phrase:

JPMorgan was paid $19m to structure and market the Squared CDO alone

  • 10
    It used to be most commonly seen in the context of "bespoke tailors", people who would make you a suit from scratch instead of altering one they had made earlier to your size. In that case "bespoke" is applying to what the tailors make (i.e. bespoke suits), rather than the tailors themselves.
    – user1579
    Jun 23, 2011 at 11:37
  • @Rhodri, yep, and the usage has now just spread to all kinds of goods basically
    – Thursagen
    Jun 23, 2011 at 11:38
  • @Rhodri: If you NGram bespoke suits,bespoke tailors you'll see that usage is actually increasing over recent decades. It does have 'archaic' overtones, but that doesn't mean it's falling out of fashion as implied by your "It used to be..." Jun 24, 2011 at 5:11
  • @FumbleFingers: I more meant that wearing suits is less common than it used to be. At one point almost all non-manual labour jobs had a dress code requiring suits. That is much less true than it used to be, not just because of the rise of the IT sector.
    – user1579
    Jun 24, 2011 at 11:42

OP must be American (or at least not British, though I don't know about Australian usage, for example). He's aware of the original (now pretty much archaic) meaning of bespoke, but not the modern meaning of custom-made - which I must admit seems to more UK than US usage.

Bespoke Tailors, for example, would be familiar to most Brits. A bit oxymoronic, perhaps, but it distinguishes them from tailors who only sell 'off-the-peg' suits (with perhaps minor alterations available, such as adjusting trouser length).

You'll also find Bespoke Shoes, Interior Design, and Software, and a few others in the UK, where usage seems to be increasing over recent decades (there was hardly any software to be 'bespoke' before about 1980, and what did exist then was almost always bespoke in any case, so the adjective was redundant). Software notwithstanding, the word does have somewhat 'genteel' archaic connotations.

Note that this UK usage only occurs with the past participle (of bespeak). Neither the tailor nor the customer can bespeak a suit for example.

The 'original' sense (as the past participle of can indeed mean to indicate, as OP says. But only at a stretch, and really just plain old speak of does that anyway. Again, that bespoke usage is archaic/poetic in the UK.

If anyone does use the word in any of the older senses apart from indicate, it's likely to mean something like ask for in advance, as given in my link.

  • Re: the meaning of bespoke as "custom-made.". Wiktionary lists it as "(UK) Individually or custom made." Jun 23, 2011 at 14:28
  • @Peter Mortensen: I don't understand. Are you saying I shouldn't have hyphenated the word? Jun 23, 2011 at 20:33
  • @FumbleFingers: no, not at all. It was the UK thingy I was trying to refer to. Perhaps it is only understood as custom-made in the UK? Jun 23, 2011 at 21:15
  • @Peter Mortensen: All I can say is I'd expect most compentent UK speakers to be familiar with the custom-made meaning, because bespoke tailoring is a sort of standard 'oxymoron' here. You'd probably find the words "Bespoke Tailors" displayed somewhere outside most of the many businesses on Savile Row, home of up-market made-to-measure suits in London. I don't personally know about US usage, but NGram figures suggest Bespoke Tailor gets 10x more hits in UK than US, so I guess it's not a well-known term there. Jun 24, 2011 at 1:39
  • I've heard it here in the US occasionally, and always loved the word.
    – jackgill
    Jun 24, 2011 at 1:42

Now I'm not a scholar or even very competent in the English language. But I seem to be reading and hearing it a lot more in the last two years. When I first heard used in a sentence, I could not quite understand what it meant (as used in the sentence not the object it refered to).

As I remembered and understood from my school days, bespoke was a term used to describe something or someone that is very exclusive, expensive and afforded to the royalties and the rich. It was only used sparingly.

I'm still bemused by the frequent usage of this word in "modern" times. Still don't get it. Guess I'm a little "old-fashion". But I'm still confused by certain words used nowadays that were not so common back in the days.

  • This isn't an answer, it's a commentary of your life.
    – dwjohnston
    Jun 16, 2014 at 5:18

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