Originally a word of fairly neutral connotation meaning broadly “the doing of an action or operation,” performance has long been particularly closely associated with the theatre, to the extent that this has significantly colored many of its other uses; more recently, it has become a key term in the discourse of management, in the assessment of how well employees fulfill the requirements of their jobs. The tensions between these two poles of meaning are significant and ongoing.
The parent verb perform was borrowed from (Anglo-)French around 1300. By the end of C14, it shows the starting points of a broad range of senses, including: “to put (something) into effect,” “to do what one has to do,” “to carry out, execute, or accomplish (something),” “to cause or produce (a certain result),” “to carry out (a public function, rite, etc.),” and also (now obsolete) “to make or create (something),” “to complete (something).” Major later sense developments include “to carry out one’s function”; (of a financial investment) “to give a good return”; and a cluster of related senses that have their starting point in lC16: “to present (a play)”; “to act (a role)”; “to act, give a performance”; and (developed from these in lC19) “to display bad temper, to misbehave.” (The French verb is a formation from par-, per- (< Latin per >) and fournir, from which English furnish is also borrowed; fournir was borrowed into French in pre-literary times from another Germanic language.)
C20 developments include: “To have sexual intercourse (esp. satisfactorily)” and “Esp. of a child or a pet: to urinate or defecate,” both developments from “to do what one has to do” and related uses, but frequently playing or punning on the theatrical senses, and probably sometimes perceived as extensions of those senses. This same punning is an important undercurrent of many contemporary uses of the word.
The derivative performance is found from lC15 in a set of meanings which mirror those of the verb, including “accomplishment, carrying out, or doing of something”; “quality of execution (especially against a standard or measure)”; “something done”; (now obsolete) “an achievement or creation”; “carrying out or fulfillment (of a duty, etc.)”; “performing or instance of performing a play or artistic work, or a ceremony, rite, etc.” (Middle French parformance is very rare, and probably not the root of the English word.)
Although the core meanings of perform and performance have changed relatively little since the early modern period, their typical uses have changed considerably, in ways that are highly revealing of shifts in C20 society. In C19, uses typically center on the performance of machinery, on the fulfillment of tasks and duties, and on dramatic and artistic performance. In lC20, two major developments have occurred: first, the employment of performance measures in education has become more and more prevalent; and second, in the workplace trends from measurement of the performance of machinery and systems and trends from psychology and education have converged in the measurement and assessment of the performance of the individual worker in the workplace.
Among other cultural developments, two from the world of linguistics are significant. In the 1955 William James lectures at Harvard, J. L. Austin introduced the notion of performative uses of language. Against traditional philosophies of language that only understood language as referring to the world, Austin pointed to uses of language like “I promise,” in which the utterance actually performs an action—the action of promising. This emphasis on the construction of an intersubjective world through symbolic action has led in the humanities and social sciences to the “performative turn,” which has brought a focus on human actions and behavior as performance.
In a separate development, an important distinction in linguistics was introduced in the 1960s by Noam Chomsky, between performance as actual linguistic usage as opposed to competence as a speaker’s knowledge of a language; hence performance grammar, performance error, etc.
In other areas of cultural and intellectual life, performance art developed in the 1960s as art that focused on the live relation between artist and audience, introducing a strong element of theatre into galleries and museums. The theorizing of gender in the 1990s, and particularly the work of Judith Butler, emphasized how gender could be understood as a continuous social performance rather than a simple biological given.
Contemporary collocations of perform and performance highlight the use of these terms in the workplace. In contemporary usage, functions, tasks, duties, and obligations are all frequently performed, as are roles, miracles, calculations, experiments, exercises, and acts (frequently sexual ones), as well as, less frequently, feats, songs, and tricks. People are able or unable to perform tasks, etc., which they are asked, required, or expected to perform. Frequent modifying adverbs are effectively, efficiently, satisfactorily, adequately, successfully, regularly, or competently. These adverbial modifiers point particularly clearly to the key role of perform in the contemporary discourse of management. The most frequent collocates of performance incline even more strongly in this direction. Performance is frequently modified by high, poor, improved, improving, or excellent; it may be improved, measured, monitored, or assessed. Important compounds include performance standards, indicators, measures, criteria, assessment, and targets. Not all uses by any means relate to performance by human beings, but even those which do not have shifted away from the physical machinery typically assessed in C19 uses. In contemporary use, software is very frequently assessed for its performance; and one of the most frequent of all compounds is economic performance. Frequent compounds belonging to particular fields are academic performance and athletic performance. Sexual performance is a very frequent collocation, and performance anxiety frequently has reference to sexual intercourse.
The modern study of performance management in the workplace has gone under that name only since the 1970s, although performance appraisal has some earlier currency, as does job performance (in the latter case back even into the first half of C20); in earlier use, individual performance refers more often to testing machinery than human individuals, as does performance testing. The collocation performance standards in early use typically belongs to the discourse of testing machinery and also to the discourse of psychology, while performance measures occurs in early use chiefly in the realms of psychology and education. All these compounds have shifted significantly into the discourse of management in recent decades, where they have been joined by other expressions such as performance-related pay.
Perform and performance are in this way central to a modern discourse of assessment and measurement, especially in the workplace and especially with regard to how well people are considered to be meeting the requirements of their jobs or (more commonly) their roles—a further reminder of the somewhat uneasy links that exist between the lexicon of workplace management and the lexicon of theatre.