PERFUNCTORY [per-FUNGK-tuh-ree] : a routine function, lacking real care


There is a gradation to tasks completed.  It goes something like this:


It should be no surprise to anyone that functions or products get rated this way.   And it should be no surprise to discover that we are all guilty of accomplishing various tasks in each of the categories.

Sometimes the task is challenging and exciting.   We put our all into it and are proud of the accomplishment of having completed it and showing it.  For an artist, it is the piece of canvas that gets placed in a show.  For a writer, it is the short story or novel that is worth all the trouble of getting it published.  For the chef, it is the featured item on the menu and is served with the most fantastic presentation possible.

But sometimes we put a lot of ourselves into a function only to discover that it could have been improved upon.  The timing may be important, allowing us to present the finished product, well-knowing that had we had more time it would have been a far more successful product.   But it is okay, and the customer will be pleased.

And there there is the task or product that is just done for the sake of getting it done.   We rush through it, don’t bother with a lot of re-working, and are satisfied just to hand it over and know that it won’t bug us any more.  It’s good, but it’s not great.  I’m afraid that for many people that is the normal way of doing things.  It’s all about putting in the time, punching the time clock, and heading home never to think about the product again.  That is what is meant by perfunctory.  It’s a way of working that is barely sufficient, but not bad enough to fail the test.

The word perfunctory comes into English from Late Latin (16th-17th century) and is a product of the word forms per and fungi, meaning “to perform or function.”   The resources I consulted are consistent in making it a word that means simply “to be done.”   I don’t think it’s all that difficult to see how this word has emerged in American English to mean that it is a finished product, but barely able to meet the standards which would make it more than “good.”

The Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary is very clear about one’s intentions when performing a perfunctory task:

done quickly and without showing that you care or have much interest”

That pretty much sums it up for me.  For today’s word, I give it a “meh.”


Illustration Credit: bonbons and martinis

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