Stickybeak’s Lexicon. Perquisite. An old word with modern meaning.

Stickybeak’s Lexicon

Expanding my vocabulary one word at a time


This new candidate for the Lexicon is not one of the more unusual ones. Indeed, it didn’t really require looking up when I came across it. This is more than likely because its colloquial form has entrenched itself in our contemporary speech to such an extent that I simply skimmed over perquisite, content in the knowledge that perk and its parent form were one and the same. They are.

However, having come to the end of the chapter (a very interesting one about the life of Eleanor of Castile), I decided to go back to perquisite for a closer look. It is, for me, one of those words which demands closer inspection; surely, I thought, there must be more to it than the single syllable perk suggests.

My thumb index Oxford Encyclopedic offers the following:


1)      an extra profit or allowance additional to main income. No surprise there; I would imagine most of us have at some point in our working lives taken advantage of at least one or two perquisites of this nature.

2)      a customary extra right or privilege.

3)      an incidental benefit attached to employment.

4)      a thing which has served its primary use and to which a subordinate or servant has a customary right.

In the current age of austerity and horror at bankers’ bonuses that phrase ‘customary extra right’ takes on a much more controversial meaning; as does the ‘incidental benefit’. Now, it can of course mean something as simple as health insurance or a free parking space. It’s when that ‘incidental’ perquisite comes in seven figures that one tends to get a touch hot under one’s unstarched collar. Interestingly, perquisite is a Middle English word stemming from the Latin perquirere: to search diligently for. Now there’s an idea: send the bankers off on an Arthurian quest to diligently seek their perquisite; make them work for it. Imagine a kind of financial sector reality show where only the most courageous and talented gets to cash the golden cheque.

In a way, it is a shame that the shortened version perk has become the norm; it’s just so plosive and violent; like a crow’s squawk (if a crow had lips). Perquisite sounds much more romantic, and fits the final usage perfectly. You can imagine a Queen making a gift of her finest ermine-trimmed robe, (such an exquisite perquisite), to an eager Lady of the Chamber, who probably had her medieval eye on it from the very first. The perquisites of the job back in the Middle Ages were just as important as our perks of today, and, no doubt, just as controversial.


© flyingscribbler 2012



One comment on “Stickybeak’s Lexicon. Perquisite. An old word with modern meaning.

  1. John Wiswell says:

    Always figured “perks” came from a longer word. All English speaking regions have their habits of shortening words down, often to nubs like that. But I like that, “to search diligently for.” What a distance in meaning the term has traveled.

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