perp n. a pup or puppy; a dog. Also purp. Editorial Note: In the 1958 citation, “Perp” is the name of a dog. In the 1959 source, a dog is pictured wearing a cowboy hat. Etymological Note: Probably due to r-epenthesis (also known as “the intrusive r“). Epenthesis is the insertion of an extra sound in a word, in this case an “r” in the word “pup.” Well-known examples of this are pronunciations of wash that sound like warsh and of drawing that sound like drawring. Thanks to Sarah Hilliard for her help with this explanation. See the comments for a more detailed explanation by Ben Zimmer. (source: Double-Tongued Dictionary)

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  1. Ben Zimmer says:

    Just to be clear, the “intrusive r” of drawring is a slightly different phenomenon from the epenthetic r of warsh and perp. “Intrusive r” occurs in non-rhotic speech when a non-high vowel and a following vowel straddle a morpheme boundary. The warsh phenomenon is (AIUI) thought to originate with the loss of non-rhotic prestige, as when Southern r-lessness lost prestige in the South Midland dialect region. As the rhotic pattern became more prestigious, war changed from [wÉ”:] to [wÉ”r], and some speakers then hypercorrected other forms like wash. One can imagine a similar hypercorrection extending from purr to pup. But I think this implies that pup must have been pronounced with a central vowel ([pÉ™:p] or [pÉœ:p]), since we wouldn’t expect an epenthetic r inserted after a back vowel in [pÊŒ:p]. (Somewhat similar is the case of lurve, a non-rhotic pronunciation spelling of [lÉ™:v], a jocular pronunciation of love.)

  2. Excellent information, Ben. Thanks. One paper I found that was helpful was Bryan Gick’s “A gesture-based account of intrusive consonants in English,” Phonology 16, pp. 29-54, 1999, Cambridge University Press.

  3. I do have a cite of perp=perpetrator from 1973 (found it yesterday), but Ben’s right, I think. Although the 1878 and 1910 cites do discuss dogs getting into mischief, there are no cops in involved—which is important since “perp” until the rise of hip-hop was strictly copspeak (or crime beat reporter-speak). Also, none of other sources discuss dogs making trouble. Finally, the affected country or hick speech in the 1878 and 1915 cites seems hardly the place for the word “perpetrator” much less an in-the-know “perp.”

  4. The Dictionary of American Regional English concurs, by the way, with the definition given here, in its entry for “purp.” It marks it as a pronunciation-spelling for “pup.”

  5. squirrel says:

    As I read the examples, I realize that in each given case they are referring to a dog or pup, but they could just as easily refer to the traditional meaning of “perp”—as in perpetrator of a crime.  A criminal perpetrator or “perp”.  I think its a huge stretch to think these examples define the word to mean a dog or puppy.  Am I the only one who sees this?

  6. Ben Zimmer says:

    Perp meaning ‘perpetrator’ only dates to about 1981, so this sense couldn’t account for the earlier citations.

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