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Friday, May 25, 2018

Perking up

Photo by Piotr Miazga on Unsplash
An avid Wordlady reader has inquired about the word "perks", i.e. side benefits associated with a job.

Where does this word come from? Are these ancillary benefits called this because they perk you up from your otherwise dreary worklife? Or are they somehow related to the reinvigorating effect of a cup of coffee (does anyone actually refer to "perked coffee" anymore?).

No, in fact "perk" is an abbreviation of the much more highfalutin word "perquisite", derived from Latin perquisitum (a thing acquired or gained, an acquisition, profit), from the same root as "acquisition". This word has had the meaning of "profits, benefits, etc. in addition to the regular revenue" since the 16th century. The slang abbreviation "perk" started to be used in the mid-19th century. I would say that "perk" has now become the neutral-register term for this concept, and that "perquisite" has become quite formal.

There is some early evidence of this being spelled "perq", because of its derivation, but current dictionaries list only "perk". Do not spell it "perq" unless you want people to think you are insufferably pretentious. 

In reference to coffee, as in
‘I thought as I spotted the coffee perk, I need lethal doses of almost dangerously potent coffee.’
or as the verb
 ‘A pot of coffee already sat perking, filling the room with its rich aroma.’ 
"perk" is obviously derived from "percolate" and "percolator". And yet no one suggests it should be spelled "perc", hmmmm. These words come from Latin percōlāre to filter, strain, trickle through < per- through + cōlāre filter.

Perk up, meaning "become or make more cheerful, lively, or interesting." is unrelated, but of uncertain origin. It may be related to "perch".

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.