Link to the University of Pittsburgh
Jesus College, University of Cambridge

Keyword: Perform / Performance

The verb perform was borrowed from (Anglo-)French in around 1300. By the end of 14c it shows the starting points of a broad range of senses, including: ‘to put (something) into effect’, ‘to do what one has to do’, ‘to carry out, execute, or accomplish (something)’, ‘to cause or produce (a certain result)’, ‘to carry out (a public function, rite, etc.)’, and also (now obsolete) ‘to make or create (something)’, ‘to complete (something)’.  Major later sense developments include ‘to carry out one’s function’; (of a financial investment) ‘to give a good return’; and a cluster of related senses which have their starting point in late 16c: ‘to present (a play)’; ‘to act (a role)’; ‘to act, give a performance’; and (developed from these in late 19c) ‘to display bad temper, to misbehave’.

Two 20c developments are ‘to have sexual intercourse (especially in a way perceived as satisfactory)’ and (of a child or pet) ‘to defecate or urinate’, both developments from some understanding ‘to do what one has to do’ and related uses, but frequently playing or punning on the theatrical senses, and probably sometimes perceived as extensions of those senses. This same punning is an important undercurrent to many contemporary uses of the word.

Although the French verb is today found only in very restricted legal use, in Old French and Middle French it has the meanings ‘to carry out, execute, complete, achieve (something)’, and in Middle French also ‘to present (a play)’, giving a clear starting point for the word’s major sense developments in English. The French verb (parfournir, but also found in Anglo-Norman in numerous variants including performer) is a formation from par-, per- (< Latin per-) and fournir, from which English furnish shows a borrowing, and which ultimately shows a Germanic borrowing in French.

The derivative performance is found from late 15c in a set of meanings which mirror those of the verb, including ‘accomplishment, carrying out, or doing of something’; ‘quality of execution (especially against a standard or measure)’; ‘something done’; (now obsolete) ‘an achievement or creation’; ‘carrying out or fulfilment (of a duty, etc.)’; ‘performing or instance of performing a play or artistic work, or a ceremony, rite, etc.’ (Middle French parformance is very rare, and probably not the etymon of the English word.)

Although the core meanings of perform and performance have changed relatively little since the early modern period, their typical uses have changed considerably, in ways that are highly revealing of shifts in 20c society. In 19c, uses typically centre on the performance of machinery, on the fulfilment of tasks and duties, and on dramatic and artistic performance. In later 20c, two major developments have occurred: firstly, the employment of performance measures in education has become more and more prevalent; and secondly, in the workplace trends from measurement of the performance of machinery and systems and trends from psychology and education have converged in the measurement and assessment of the performance of the individual worker in the workplace.

In a separate development in the world of linguistics, an important distinction was introduced in the 1960s by Chomsky, between performance as actual linguistic usage as opposed to competence as a speaker’s knowledge of a language; hence performance grammar, performance error, etc. In the discourse of the humanities and social sciences, the performative turn has recently brought a focus on human actions and behaviour as performance.

Contemporary collocations of perform and performance are revealing of recent trends, particularly in the use of these terms in the workplace. In contemporary usage, functions, tasks, duties, and obligations are all frequently performed, as are contracts, roles, miracles, calculations, experiments, exercises, and acts (frequently sexual ones), as well as, less frequently, feats, songs, and tricks. People are able or unable to perform tasks etc. which they are asked, required, or expected to perform. Frequent modifying adverbs are effectively, efficiently, satisfactorily, adequately, successfully, regularly, or competently. These adverbial modifiers point particularly clearly to the key role of perform in the contemporary discourse of management. The most frequent collocates of performance incline even more strongly in this direction. Performance is frequently modified by high, poor, improved, improving, or excellent; it may be improved, measured, monitored, or assessed. Important compounds include performance standards, indicators, measures, criteria, assessment, and targets. Not all uses by any means relate to performance by human beings. But even those which do not have shifted away from the physical machinery typically assessed in 19c uses. In contemporary use, software is very frequently assessed for its performance; and one of the most frequent of all compounds is economic performance. Frequent compounds belonging to particular fields are academic performance and athletic performance. Sexual performance is a very frequent collocation, and performance anxiety frequently has reference to sexual intercourse.

The modern study of performance management in the workplace has gone under that name only since the 1970s, although performance appraisal has some earlier currency, as does job performance (in the latter case back even into the first half of 20); in earlier use, individual performance refers more often to testing machinery than human individuals, as does performance testing. The collocation performance standards in early use typically belongs to the discourse of testing machinery and also to the discourse of psychology, while performance measures occurs in early use chiefly in the realms of psychology and education. All these compounds have shifted significantly into the discourse of management in recent decades, where they have been joined by other expressions such as performance-related pay.

Perform and performance are in this way central to a modern discourse of assessment and measurement, especially in the workplace and especially with regard to how well people are considered to be meeting the requirements of their jobs or (more commonly) their roles – a further reminder of the somewhat uneasy links that exist between the lexicon of workplace management and the lexicon of theatre.