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up vote 8 down vote accepted

Possibly there are dialectal contexts for picked and perked, but so far as I'm concerned they look like mistakes made by people who simply misheard or misremembered the original and correct pricked up.

Feasibly someone might pick up if they've been poorly, though I would normally expect that to be perk up anyway. Certainly in general to perk up just means to become more lively, and you can't apply it as a verb to your ears.

From OED: prick noun - a sharp point or spur, from which among various other meanings of the verb form, to prick up - to rise or stand erect with the point directed upward; to point or stick up. This usage has been around since at least 1775 - [the horse] pricked up his ears.

Here's an NGram showing that only pricked up is really used.

actual usage

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+1 And a shout-out to @Martha while we're at it. – Robusto Jun 7 '11 at 0:22
Interesting. I'd have without hesitation chosen "perked up" as the most familiar expression. In fact, I don't recall having encountered the other two in such a context. – Rick Mar 21 '12 at 19:28
@Rick: Martha must have deleted her comment, which I don't recall now. But presumably it was a link to NGrams or something proving the point. You can certainly "perk up" (intransitive), but it would be rare/wrong to use it transitively with an object such as ears. Perhaps I'd better add a link myself, since Martha's proof is no longer available. – FumbleFingers Mar 21 '12 at 19:37
There was Joe Ortons's play 'Prick Up Your Ears'. – Barrie England Mar 21 '12 at 19:52
@Barrie England: Umm. There would have been, but he never actually got around to writing it before he was offed by his boyfriend. The title was used by John Lahr for his 1978 biography of Orton, and by Stephen Frears for the 1987 film version thereof. I saw the film recently, but to be honest, wasn't overly impressed with either the screenplay, or the characters portrayed by it. Dunno if they were accurate characterisations though. – FumbleFingers Mar 21 '12 at 23:26

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