“Painstaking” Does Not Mean “Painful” and a “Perk” is not a “Prerequisite”

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Uses of the word painstaking that I’ve noticed recently suggest that some speakers may think it’s a synonym for painful or difficult.

Painstaking combines the noun pain and the verb to take. One meaning of pain is “trouble taken for the accomplishment of something.” Also, in early use, it meant “trouble in accomplishing something, difficulty.”

As a noun, painstaking is the action of “taking pains.” A person who takes pains in doing something is exerting diligent care and effort.

As an adjective, painstaking can be applied to an action, as in “the painstaking collection of forensic evidence.” Usually it applies to the person who is taking pains over a task.

The following examples seem to suggest that painstaking means painful, unpleasant, or difficult:

Many students find research assignments difficult and painstaking. But once you know all the steps, the task becomes less complicated.

Painstaking Truths in Life & How to Overcome Them

. . . the job of attaching the wire was much too painstaking and time-consuming for any large-scale production.

My take on these three uses of painstaking:

1. An English teacher at heart, I think that students should take pains over their writing assignments. It is misleading to suggest that completing a research assignment shouldn’t be “painstaking.”

2. I have no idea what a “painstaking truth” might be. I read the blog post under these words and still didn’t understand the significance of the title. Painful would perhaps be the more appropriate word here.

3. Another word seems to be called for. Perhaps the job of attaching the wire was too fiddly, fussy, delicate, or intricate to be practicable on a large scale.

Mark Twain makes a clever pun on pain as “effort” and pain as “physical discomfort” in Chapter XVIII of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1888), when he describes the executioner as “a good, painstaking and pain-giving official.”

The word perk and the plural perks have become well established in standard English since the 1960s. The shortening’s original word, perquisite, has become less familiar, with the result that some writers, feeling that perk is too slangy for formal writing, may be in danger of spelling out the wrong word in an effort to upgrade their word choice.

Here, for example, is an example of what I mean:

More than 40 years before, as a 19-year-old aristocrat with scant military training to back up the honorific “Major General” rank that was a prerequisite of his family’s wealth, he had presented himself to Gen. George Washington expecting to be given a command.

The aristocrat in question is the Marquis of Lafayette. The intended meaning is that he received the rank of major general because he came from a wealthy family. The unearned honorific was a “perk” of wealth and aristocratic status. The writer, however, not wishing to use the word perk has written prerequisite instead of the true source word, perquisite.

A prerequisite is something that must be gained in order to gain something else. The rank of major general for a nineteen-year-old was not necessary for the family to be wealthy. The wealth of the family enabled the young man to acquire the rank. Here are some appropriate uses of the word prerequisite:

. . . an accurate knowledge of thermodynamical properties of the system is a prerequisite for the calculations.

Understanding the formation of biogenic molecules in abiotic conditions is a prerequisite in the origin-of-life studies.

English 101 is a prerequisite for the Shakespeare course.

A perquisite, on the other hand, is an advantage that attaches to something like a job or wealth or other type of privilege.

The annual scouting trip to England and the Continent by sea was a traditional perquisite, compensation for monastic wages.

Three guild board members also have ex officio positions on the Met board, and donors solicited by the Met receive a subscription to the magazine as a perquisite.

Is flying around in the corporate jet to attend to the business of another company just part of a chief executive’s job or one more perquisite of corporate power?

A writer wishing to avoid the word perk, but who feels that perquisite has become too obscure a word, can use advantage or benefit.

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