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I hear and read these three words used in the same context in English, but is one of them more correct than the others?

"The witch's cat picked up his ears"

"Last year, when Mahmout heard that EGA would pay for several thousand mules for Greece, he perked up his ears."

"As they were speaking, a dog that had been lying asleep raised his head and pricked up his ears."

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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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    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, 2012 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. Mar 21, 2012 at 19:37
  • There was Joe Ortons's play 'Prick Up Your Ears'. Mar 21, 2012 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. Mar 21, 2012 at 23:26
  • @FumbleFingers: That's probably what I meant. Mar 22, 2012 at 7:13
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Pricked up is all I'd ever heard growing up and almost always related to our horses---I hadn't heard "perked up his/her ears...." until recently and it's always sounded out of place. When you watch a horse become suddenly alert but not frightened, it does indeed tend to "prick up (its) ears", during which the tips certainly do point skyward! Not sure how perked up would look with a horse's ears.....more perky? I've heard that used describing women's breasts but not sure it was meant to imply looking like skyward pointing horse's ears----except maybe in old TV/catalog bra commercials from the late fifties or early sixties?.....always seemed a bit uncomfortable, but perhaps that's just naïve, and also perhaps not as uncomfortable as hearing "perk up her ears" or "pick up his ear(s)"....didn't work for VV Gogh either, evidently (sorry, painful, inappropriate).

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I've also always thought it was "perked", with "pricked" a slightly naughty variant. Merriam-Webster has an entry for the "perk" form, which has no mention of "prick" as an alternate usage.

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Interestingly, if you compare a different construction of perked up and pricked up, the results show that perked up is more common, particularly, more recently. It may have been a corruption of the original "pricked up" phrase, but it's certainly an accepted/common use now. Google nGram of several versions of ears perked up/pricked up constructions

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  • Switching between American English and British English in the nGram viewer, the disparity is strikingly lopsided that American English prefers "perked up" and British English prefers "pricked up." Jun 17, 2022 at 21:09
  • I am an AmE speaker and have never ever heard: ears perked up. A person perks up, not their ears.
    – Lambie
    Jun 17, 2022 at 21:12
  • You need to get out more, Lambie. ;-) I don't know that I have heard one more than the other, but check out the nGram link for many examples. Webster seems to agree that it's principally a USage. merriam-webster.com/dictionary/perk%20%28up%29%20one%27s%20ears Jul 7, 2022 at 19:41
  • I meant to say: have never heard ears pricked up.
    – Lambie
    Jul 7, 2022 at 20:13

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