perk up your ears?

Discussion in 'English Only' started by sound shift, Aug 18, 2009.

  1. sound shift

    sound shift Senior Member

    Derby (central England)
    English - England
    In a discussion in the Dutch forum there is a difference of opinion between two participants. One maintains that "perk up your ears" is an acceptable alternative to the expression "prick up your ears". The other (me) maintains that it is not. What do you think?
  2. b1947420 Senior Member

    Lincoln, England
    British English
    Well are they both not just trying to express the idea of "getting tuned in"?

    I haven't heard "perk up your ears" before but I guess that I would understand what was meant if I did.
    I admit that I would use "prick up your ears" rather than "perk up etc", but I wouldn't state that one or other was specifically wrong.

    Just my opinion though. ;)
  3. wisequack Member

    Nashville, Tennessee, USA
    English - U.S.
    I use them interchangeably. Perhaps one is technically more accurate than the other, but in practice both are used I think. Meaning "to become alert," "to start paying attention more closely," etc.
  4. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southern England
    English - England
    In BE I've only heard and would only use 'prick up your ears', particularly since Joe Orton. Maybe the people who say perk are frightened of the other meanings of prick.
  5. wisequack Member

    Nashville, Tennessee, USA
    English - U.S.
    It also might be related to "to perk up" which has a similar meaning, to become more alert (while "to perk up your ears" means specifically to become more alert to noises).
  6. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southern England
    English - England
    You've got me curious now, Wisequack. Are you saying that in AE 'perk up' has something to do with penises?
  7. Arrius

    Arrius Senior Member

    English, UK
    I do not think that perk up your ears is used in the UK, only prick up your ears, the image being taken from the way a dog's or horse's pointed ears stand up when they hear a sudden noise. From the similarity of the two words one would think metathesis had occurred as in the Northern English brid for bird, or Chaucer's crulle for curly, but no:
    Prick is a cognate of various Germanic words for stick or sting, and perk from O.N.Fr. perquer "to perch" (Fr. percher), presumably referring to the habit of birds of preening themselves when on a perch, which conveys the idea of making oneself smart or lively. The expression perk up is used in this sense, but seems to have been conflated with the idea of a bubbling percolator, of quite different origin.
  8. sound shift

    sound shift Senior Member

    Derby (central England)
    English - England
    Thank you to everyone who replied. There are a few UK-based instances of "perk up your ears" on the Internet, but I have never heard anyone say it.
    Last edited: Aug 18, 2009
  9. Loob

    Loob Senior Member

    English UK
    Sorry to be late:(

    But for what it's worth, I'm with you, sound shift: "perk up your ears" sounds, to me, like a conflation of "prick up your ears" and "perk up".

    That's a BrE view, though. Wisequack's comments indicate that "perk up your ears" is used in AmE.

    Comparative numbers of instances from the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) and the British National Corpus (BNC) [the searches included all verb endings/types of possessive]:

    Prick COCA 56, BNC 20
    Perk COCA 13, BNC 0
  10. panjandrum

    panjandrum Occasional Moderator

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    Ditto to Loob's post - and thanks for doing the bit of research I could feel coming on as I read down the thread :)
  11. elroy

    elroy Sharp-heeled Mod

    Chicago, IL
    US English/Palestinian Arabic bilingual
    This must be a clear American-British difference, as "perk up" sounds completely fine to me in this context. I often use it intransitively: "Every time I'm in a foreign country and I hear my language, my ears perk up." I guess I would understand "prick up" if it was used to mean the same thing, but I wouldn't use it myself - and I don't think I've ever heard anyone use it (although it does seem to be used in American English, based on wisequack's post). To me, it sounds too literal; it evokes the image of someone's ears literally protruding conspicuously. :)
  12. Loob

    Loob Senior Member

    English UK
    Two nations divided ... though COCA indicates that at least some AmE speakers "prick up" their ears.

    Elroy, if I heard you saying "my ears perk up", I'd wonder why your ears had been depressed beforehand:D
  13. ribran

    ribran Senior Member

    Austin, Texas
    English - American
    I completely agree with Elroy. I don't think I've ever heard the word "prick" used in this sense.

    What do the lexicographers have to say?

    Merriam-Webster's Learner's Dictionary calls it chiefly American.

    The Collins English Dictionary recognizes the American use.
    Last edited: Mar 29, 2011

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