Printable Version
Pronunciation: kês-têm Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun

Meaning: 1. Traditional practice, the usual way of doing things, accepted traditions (among a specific group). 2. Habitual patronage, business, as "I took my custom away from his shop." 3. Habit, repeated practice (of one person). 4. (Adjective) Made to order: 'a custom suit'. 5. Customs The border office that checks passports and collects the duties on items imported or the duties themselves.

Notes: Ever wonder where customer came from? Well, in the UK people are accustomed to equating custom with business: "I reserve my custom for local shops." For some reason the US has abandoned this custom. The verb customize "make according to the customer's request" is based on this sense of the word on both sides of the Atlantic. The adjective for sense Nos. 1, 2, and 3 is customary and for sense No. 5, customable.

In Play: A habit should apply to individuals, while custom should apply to multiple people. However, we have confused the two so much that most dictionaries now accept them as synonyms. "It is my custom to ignore such matters", should be, "It is my habit to ignore such matters." However, making the distinction now is a lost cause.

Word History: In Middle English today's word was spelled custume from Old French costume, borrowed also "as is" by English in the sense of "the dress customarily worn by a people". French inherited this word from Vulgar Latin constum(i)n-, an idiomatic variation of Latin consuetudin-, oblique stem of consuetudo "custom". This word was based on consuetus "accustomed", the past participle of consuescere "to accustom", comprising com- "(together) with" (here an intensive prefix) + suescere "to become accustomed". Latin inherited the root from PIE s(w)e- "self". It turns up alone in Latin sui "self" which English borrowed in suicide and sui generis "unique" (its own kind). Russian svoj "one's own" and English self share the same origin. (Here is a custom "thank you" for Tomasz Kowaltowski, who suggested today's unexpectedly Good Word.)

Dr. Goodword,

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