Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
Most jobs come with some sort of perk — an employee discount, a company car, a free gym membership. I, for example, have a comfortable sofa in my office. This type of perk showed up in the 1860s as a shortening of perquisite, a word that had existed in English since the mid-1400s. The meaning then was much as it is now: “property acquired other than by inheritance or purchase.”
This in turn comes from perquisitum, meaning “thing gained” in Medieval Latin and “thing sought after” in classical Latin. Perquisitum is a noun form of perquirere, which breaks down as per- “thoroughly” (like in persuade) plus the verb quaerere “to seek.”
Why the change in the Latin meaning? I can only guess that over the centuries during the transition from classical Latin to Medieval Latin, enough people must have (rather easily, perhaps) found the thing they were seeking that the word eventually referred to the thing they got without even really looking for it.
If that quaerere makes you think of question and other question-related words, you’re on the right track: Other words that find quaerere at their root include question, query, and inquire, as well as exquisite, acquire, and conquer.
Of course, perk can be a verb, too, but it has a different backstory. There are a few ways that something or someone can perk up or be perked up. In a crowded room, you might perk up at the sound of your own name. If you’re feeling a bit drowsy, you might drink some coffee to help perk yourself up. And if your clothes seem a little drab today, you could perk them up with some bedazzling.
None of these cases of perk relate to perquisites. Instead, they all come from a late-14th-century alteration of perch. The Medieval Latin perca was a pole or rod for a hawk to rest on — that is, to perch on. The word came to English through French, and eventually became the broader perch, meaning any place that a bird sat and waited.
In some dialects, perch became perk and also took on a second sense of any horizontal bar used for support. Thus, when you perk up, one of two things is metaphorically happening: You’re either using something external to you to give yourself support, or you’re preening like a pretty-bird on its roost.
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