Here’s a word that sits up erect and peppy. Actually, it’s more than one word, and the different words have different sources and different meanings – and yet they all have a similar, um, perkiness. There’s the perk that means a perch for a bird (or a staff or similar thing); that’s apparently a variant of perch and no one uses it much anymore. But then there’s the perk that’s a verb formed from the just-mentioned noun. The literal sense is also not used much, but the verb perk that seems to be a metaphorical extension of it is used quite a bit: originally to behave proudly, now to be or become lively, smart, happy, et cetera. As though one had just had one’s first cup of good coffee in the morning.

Which leads us to another verb perk, which comes from percolate. Although percolation itself is a rather passive, gravity-driven activity, coffee percolators make the percolation happen by burbling water up through a spout, which makes the lid pop a bit, and so there’s this jumping sound to go with your jumpy beans. And that sense has tended to merge with the first verb perk in the figurative sense, so that whether it’s coffee or a dog’s ears – oh, no, that’s prick up the ears, but some people do use perk up your ears instead, and you can see the two-way influence – when you are perked, or perky, you’re happy as though you’d received a nice little bonus.

Bonus? Perhaps a perquisite, a benefit arising from a position or situation. This is usually shortened to – yes – perk, as in “One of the perks of this job is the free coffee.” A natural to go with the other senses, since perks perk you up.

And just saying it can get you a bit more excited, as though you were being pumped up with a bicycle pump, no? Say it: perk perk perk perk perk! Percussive with its voiceless stops, but with the eager vigour of [r]. Almost like one of those peppy little purse dogs. This is even a little purse dog of a word in its visual aspect, especially with the k like the tiny legs and pointy tail at the end sticking up.

Oh, yes, up – that’s the word that comes so often after perk, adding to the confusion with prick up as in ears. Lively, happy, bouncy, caffeinated, of course it’s up! Where else could it be? Only one other location: as your Friends will tell you, Central Perk.

2 responses to “perk

  1. I’ve seen the shortened version of perquisite as ‘perq’. I suspect that’s non-standard, probably even pedantic. What’s your take on it?

    • As it happens, seeing it spelled that way in Richard Gwyn’s The Northern Magus is what brought the word to mind for a tasting. The OED indicates that the two forms are of roughly equal antiquity, but certainly perq is the less common. I think those using it will tend to be read as implying “Look at me! I know what this word is short for!” But it does have a bit of fun appeal in the q at the end, which is unusual and mirrors the p at the beginning. I would taste it, but I probably wouldn’t use it unless I wanted to seem pretentious.

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