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Our language comes with several "perks"

Employee perks have become increasingly elaborate over the years.

Some jobs come with unlimited vacation time and months of paid parental leave. There are companies that offer a constant supply of free food. This place has on-site car wash facilities, bicycle repair, haircut services and spa treatments. 

It's a far cry from stale "all-you-can-drink" break room coffee and the occasional Hawaiian shirt day. 

Your job may not have the perks you crave, but don't worry. This edition of That's What They Say has several "perks" and zero detriments.

There are three different meanings that we tend to associate with "perk," and all three come from different sources. Also, two "perks" are shortenings of other words, but those words are different. 

The "perk" that refers to a bonus that comes with a job or a membership is a shortened version of "perquisite." A perquisite is a small privilege. It's not a word many of us use very often, but it does tend to show up in more formal writings where "perk" would sound too informal. 

Another type of "perk" has to do with the aforementioned free coffee that can be found in break rooms across the country. This one is a shortening of "percolate" which means to filter a liquid or gas through a porous surface. A percolator coffee pot works by forcing boiling water up through the grounds and then back down again -- in other words, it "perks" the coffee.

Notice how both of these "perks" are spelled with a "k" on the end, even though neither of their root words contain that letter? Language can be so awesomely weird.

Job perks and perked coffee have one more thing in common: They both have the ability to perk you up, or make you feel a bit happier or energetic. That leads us to one more form of "perk."

This last "perk" isn't a shortening of another word. In fact, we don't actually know where this one comes from. The editors of the Oxford English Dictionary speculate that it may be related to "perch." If that's the case, then "perk" probably became a verb meaning to "perch" yourself or life yourself up onto a branch, or pole or other perch.

From there, it's not hard to see how this "perk" could take on a more figurative meaning. To "perk up" is to rise up, to cheer up, to liven up.

Are you aware of any other perks that we didn't mention? Let us know below.


Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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