“Perk”

On her blog, Fritinancy, Nancy Friedman has chosen as the Word of the Week “perk-cession,” defined (by the Wall Street Journal) as the way “companies are cutting back on prized employee perks from fancy coffee to free cab rides as they vow to trim costs and prioritize efficiency.” She writes:

Perk, by the way, is a truncation of perquisite, which entered English from Latin—“a thing acquired or granted”—in the 1400s. Since around 1567, perquisite has meant “any casual profit, fee, remuneration, etc., attached to an office or position in addition to the normal salary or revenue,” as the OED puts it. The “perk” abbreviation started appearing in truncated form around 1869 in the UK. I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to determine when it migrated to the US; I’m pretty sure it was within my own lifetime. (When I started working, I would have used the term “fringe benefit” rather than “perk.”) Anyone out there able to trace perk’s procession?

OK, OK, I’ll do it.

Nancy specified 1869 because that’s the date of the first citation in the OED, from a muckraking book by James Greenwood called The Seven Curses of London. In a chapter on thieves he writes about a species of “small pilfering”:

Ordinarily it is called by the cant name of “perks,” which is a convenient abbreviation of the word “perquisites,” and in the hands of the users of it, it shows itself a word of amazing flexibility.  It applies to such unconsidered trifles as wax candle ends, and may be stretched so as to cover the larcenous abstraction by our man-servant of forgotten coats and vests.  As has been lately exposed in the newspapers, it is not a rare occurrence for your butler or your cook to conspire with the roguish tradesman, the latter being permitted to charge “his own prices,” on condition that when the monthly bill is paid, the first robber hands over to the second two-shillings or half-a-crown in the pound.

But by 1887 the word had lost its nefarious connotation, the Pall Mall Gazette referring that year to “an order that free blacking is no longer to be among the ‘perks’ of Government office-keepers.”

As for Nancy’s question about precisely when “perk” migrated to the U.S., Green’s Dictionary of Slang has an 1882 quotation from the National Police Gazette, published in New York: “Detectives must have some protection and privileges […] not to mention the ‘perks’.” But I’ve got to think that’s an outlier, written by a British correspondent for the magazine. Myinitial research suggests the abbreviation arrived here about 1970, which is indeed (I don’t think she’ll mind me saying) within her lifetime. The first use in the New York Times came that year, in Phil Dougherty’s long-running column on advertising, the quotation marks and the explanation suggesting his readers wouldn’t be familiar with the word: “For such men as Mr. Norins and Mr. Kershaw, the cost of commuting is a perquisite— ‘perk’ in Madison Avenue jargon—bestowed by grateful management.”

Google Ngram Viewer shows British use perking up (sorry) in the 1970s and ’80s, followed by American in the ’80s and ’90s (I searched for “a perk” to limit other senses of the word.) It was used roughly equally in both countries in the 2000s, and since about 2013 it’s been more common in the U.S.

7 thoughts on ““Perk”

  1. That’s a real surprise to me. I thought the word had been around in American forever. (And, yes, I am old enough to remember how we talked in the 1970s.)

  2. English East Midlands: I’ve never thought about ‘perk’, whether it could be an abbreviation, or what for. Perhaps short words slip under my radar. I’m familiar with a few other languages, yet I can’t think of the equivalent word in any of them. The only one that comes to mind is the more pejorative French ‘piston’.

    I may have a new Noob expression for you Ben: ‘not too shabby’. Used on Youtube by an American whose idea of travel is a day out to the Four Corners Monument, so not your usual cosmopolitan suspect. I first heard ‘not too shabby’ here at least 15 years ago; it could be American, but it feels more British/Australian to me .

  3. Thanks for that, Key. I should have googled ‘not too shabby’ before posting. But now that I have, the first search result says that it’s British: https://digitalcultures.net/slang/not-too-shabby/ – Which fits with its understatement / irony.

    Other ‘very American’ words and phrases have turned out to be British, like ‘a piece of cake’ and ‘clobber’. If you look at Ben’s Ngram for ‘clobbered’ you’ll see an increase in British usage around 1935-1945, just before millions of Americans arrived here in 1943-1945.

    Looking at your Ngram for ‘not too shabby’ there’s a similar increase in British usage starting around 1931. There’s also a small rise in Britain just before American usage takes off in the 1970s. A quick search turned up the Monty Python character Ken Shabby, who appeared on British TV at the start of that rise, end of 1969 or the start of ’70.

    It occurred to me to Ngram ‘shabby chic’ and there’s a similar bump on the chart for British usage before that phrase also took off in the US. Could I have chanced across not one but two Noob phrases? Hopefully Ben can pick the bones out of all this.

  4. From what I can find, “not too shabby” as an expression meaning “pretty good!” originated in America. In Google Books (which Ngram Viewer reflects) there are lots of literal uses in both UK and US in the 1800s and early 1900s, that is, referring to a garment or something else that isn’t too shabby (but maybe a little shabby). The first use of the *expression* is from a short story collection by American writer James Boyer May in 1947: “‘Not too shabby.’ He strode what he called his terrace. ‘Notice the breeze from that smaller canyon to the left? I’ll have that year-round current created by winds either from north or west.'” The first example in the OED is from the New York Times in 1975, quoting American golfer Johnny Miller saying ” I gave it my best, and 66 and 65 [i.e. golf scores] are not too shabby.” The next quote is from the Christian Science Monitor in 1980. The first British citation isn’t until 1990 from The Independent.

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