The verb bespeak admits two past participles: bespoke and bespoken. I am interested in the attributive usage of these terms.

A bespoke suit is one tailored to please and to fit a particular customer. Occasionally, bespoken is used in the same sense. I am puzzled by the difference. Personally I find bespoken to be rarer, and Google seems to concur.

My question is, whether the two are interchangeable, or whether a preference of one over the other is significant in terms of register, region, or whether there is actually a nuance in meaning.

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    I’ve never heard of a bespoken suit. Neither has ngrams – Jim Nov 21 '16 at 21:38
  • @Jim Google gives quite a few hits. Besides, there's the company bespokennewyork.com. It appears to be owned by a British expat. It made me wonder whether it is significant to use 'bespoken'. – anemone Nov 21 '16 at 21:42
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    They probably think it’s significant to use bespoken. I’d never do it though. – Jim Nov 21 '16 at 21:47
  • Bespoke (and perhaps bespoken) is primarily British English. It is rarely used in American English. It is apparently also not very common in British English. (I added tag British English.) My impression is that it is used fairly often by English speakers from India, but I have no citation for that. – Drew Nov 21 '16 at 22:01
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    It's important to note that "bespoke" was not heard in the US prior to maybe 20 years ago (except perhaps in circles where Britishisms were popular). The term in the US was "tailored", or perhaps "custom made". Writing for a US audience one should be careful to avoid using the term outside of it's tailoring context, except perhaps in a figurative sense. And probably avoid "bespeak" entirely, as your listener will not easily be able to tell if you're speaking in a tailoring sense or in the sense of "suggest". – Hot Licks Nov 21 '16 at 23:07

Bespoken appears to be the original term before "bespoke" was used to mean custom-made. Its usage in that sense is now archaic and rare:

Bespoke (adj.):

  • "custom or custom-made, made to order," of goods, as distinguished from ready-made, 1755, the same sense found earlier in bespoken (c. 1600), past participle of bespeak, in a sense of "to speak for, to arrange beforehand," a sense attested in bespeak from 1580s. Now usually of tailored suits.


Ngram bespoke vs bespoken

  • Of course, "bespeak", in all it's verb forms, also means "indicate" The road bespoke money. There are many ways this word could be used in a confusing fashion. – Hot Licks Nov 21 '16 at 23:11

A suit is "bespoke" as opposed to "tailored" or "custom made" but that doesn't mean any of them is "bespoken…”

I think a “bespoke” suit is one that will be spoken about before completion, in the sense of discussing all the little details. It hasn’t yet been stitched, so it can’t be seen on the hanger.

I think a “bespoken” suit is one that has been spoken for already, in the sense of having been reserved. It might be hanging on display but it’s already been sold.

I thought “bespoken” might also be heard in furniture showrooms or on garage forecourts and that rather obviously, the other main use of that tense was in marriage contracts: a man, more usually a woman “bespoken” was a more poetic, romantic or more formal, albeit rather archaic option for the modern “spoken for” but pride goeth before a fall…

Asking Google for examples revealed “bespoken” to be so obscure, the only useful hit I got was from an anthropological study of the African Bemba, Seven Tribes of British Central Africa, by Elizabeth Colson, ‎Max Gluckman (1951)

On marriage customs of the Nyakyusa of South-Western Tangankyika we read that “A girl who is bespoken in infancy does not, ideally, go to live altogether with her husband till after she has reached puberty...”

In the sense of software development, I certainly heard the term “bespoke software” along with "bespoke solutions" in daily use for years among developers, vendors and users before, for instance, Apple’s Lisa came out in 1983 or the Edsel Apple III in 1980 though perhaps not before the Apple II in 1977.

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