‘Perfect’, the two-syllable word that has become a default response

Rosita Boland: I used to like the word ‘perfect’. It’s cancelled for me now

Waitress serving food in a restaurant. Photograph: iStock/ Getty Images

“Per-fect.” It’s the hiss of the year, the two-syllable word that has somehow become the default response of pretty much everyone working in hospitality. The first syllable is pronounced in a slow and long-drawn purr. The second syllable has an inflection that rises swiftly in speed of delivery and sound. It’s not the way I’ve ever pronounced “perfect”.

I am not sure when exactly I first noticed the insidious arrival of the word into daily conversations. Most of them involved exchanges with people working in hospitality, and obviously there were long periods in recent times when these establishments were closed.

Certainly, by mid-summer, when outdoor dining and overnight accommodation were open, and our hearts were lifting as restrictions also began to lift, the chorus of "perfects" began to rise

The conversations in cafes, bars and restaurants go like this:

Server: "What would you like to order?"
Me: "Could I please have a coffee/menu-item/drink?"
Server: "Per-fect."


And like this:

Server: "Is everything all right here?"
Me: "Yes, thank you."
Server: "Per-fect."

Or when booking accommodation over the phone, or some rare beauty treatment to attempt to tame my untamable feral ways:

Me: "I'd like to book for X date."
Person at reception confirming date: "Per-fect."

Or like this, when in a shop:

Me: "I'm trying to find X."
Assistant: "Is this what you're looking for?"
Me: "Yes, that's it. Thank you."
Assistant: "Per-fect."

The first few times this default sign-off response seemed to occur mainly in restaurants. I wondered was the server complimenting me on my inspired choice of americano, or salad, or whatever I was ordering. Was it the perfect choice on the menu? It was hardly me who was perfect, and let’s be honest, the events of the last 18 months have been anything but perfect, so what did they mean?

As the “per-fects” started hopping like eager, determined aural fleas all over the country, it began to drive me a little nuts. I would wait for it to arrive in the conversation, as it always did. To initiate any transactional conversation was to drop one metaphorical shoe. Then I waited for the second to inevitably land, in the form of those two syllables. And they always did. It began to grate quite a lot.

I wondered if the people automatically saying this word even realised they were using it.

In a restaurant one day, a server came by and asked if everything was okay. As it happens, it wasn’t. The food had come out lukewarm.

“I think this needs to be heated up,” I said, indicating the plate.

“Per-fect,” said the server, picking up the plate, and going off with it, leaving me agape at the table. He obviously didn’t mean that it was a marvellous – perfect – thing that my food was not hot, so why was he using the word out of context?

What is all this about? How did this word spread so virally through the service industry? Is there some training going on: a version of the customer is always right (blatantly untrue, by the way), by responding with “per-fect” to our every request?

The former full stops at the end of these sentences used to be “no problem.” “No problem” is still in hospitality parlance, but it seems to be spoken by those at the upper end of their careers. “Per-fect” – from purely personal observations over the last few months – seems to belong exclusively to those starting out on their hospitality careers.

I did a Google search, wondering if it had become a new slang word: an old word that had been repurposed, like a piece of clothing being altered. Language is always changing and evolving, because it's spoken by living people. There are always the buzz words of any particular year, although in my extremely humble opinion, the Oxford Dictionaries were asleep at the wheel in 2017, when they anointed "youthquake" as their word of the year. How often since then has that word tripped lightly off your tongue?

Google informed me of some slang words I had missed out on too, although many of these seemed to have originated in the United States, and given none of us have been able to travel there for months, no wonder I hadn’t heard of them. I was taken by “trill” – apparently a combination of “true” and “real”. Vaguely alarmed by “stan” – combination of “stalker” and “fan”. Acronyms are always useful when in a text hurry, so I liked “TFW”: “that feel when”, and if you want a deeper definition about feels, you can look it up yourself.

But “perfect” – nothing. Nada. Let alone “per-fect”.

Is it just me who has noticed this new linguistic trend? Where did it come from? At what point did people stop saying, “yes” or “that’s fine” or “you’re booked in”, or whatever in-between words are usually used to end a short conversation in hospitality or service? Is it laziness – using one word is less effort than coming up with a combination of new ones each time? Is it a new tic?

I used to like the word “perfect”. It’s cancelled for me now, to use another old word that has lately taken on a very different new meaning.