(23 & 24 of 44 commonly confused words)
Definitions of each word
History of each word
Peak, peek and pique. To take a peek, to feel piqued, etc.
All three words sound exactly the same and you can use them all as nouns or verbs so it is perhaps inevitable that people sometimes muddle them up.
Quick definitions & examples
A peak is the highest point of something, either physically or metaphorically, and if something peaks, it reaches its highest point:
Colors feel appropriate as well, from the brilliant white of snow-capped peaks to the deep blues in shots of water.
Urban renewal has been in practice in the industrialized nations since the 1800s, but it hit its peak in the 1940s and 1950s.
In the Nielsen poll, Mr Abbott’s personal popularity peaked more than two years ago and the longer-term trend has been down.
The Age (Aus).
A peek means ‘a quick or furtive look’ and if you peek, you ‘look quickly or furtively into or at something’. By extension, if something peeks out of something, it emerges or pokes out from it. If you ‘take a peek‘ at something, you have a quick look at it.
Security is tight and few are prepared to let outsiders peek inside.
Scotland on Sunday.
She gets her hair cut at the Muslim-owned beauty shop upstairs; she hands candy to the Somalian children who peek shyly in her store.
She noticed snowdrops peeking up through the grass beneath the trees, and pussy willows furring the hedge.
“They’d push them across the table and say, ‘You might want to take a peek at this,'” he said.
Pique is a feeling of irritation or sulkiness resulting from a perceived slight, and, more rarely, means a quarrel. If something piques your curiosity, interest, appetite, and the like, it arouses it. In this meaning the verb is often passive. If you feel piqued, you feel resentful. In a rarer meaning, if you pique yourself on something, you take pride in it.
Among those in the audience was Ed Miliband, whose intellectual curiosity was piqued.
‘You don’t have to lecture us, Lizzy’, Kitty said, somewhat piqued.
Date & source unknown.
Yet right and left alike pique themselves on this imbecile prejudice.
Guardian, Comment is Free.
At the same time—and perhaps not illogically—she piqued herself on her talent for bedroom diplomacy, working hard to persuade the President to place women in important posts.
…the Champ, after all, had once hurled his Olympic gold medal into the Ohio River, in a fit of pique at some alleged racial insult in Louisville.
Is the Attorney-General motivated by pique rather than by principle, and has she seriously considered her motives in bringing this case forward?
New Zealand Parliamentary Debates.
Probably, deep down in our mental lexicons we have all stored this knowledge about these words, but in writing it is all too easy to bang down the wrong one.
Some cases may be eggcorns. For example, as the eggcorn database points out, a phrase such as ‘to peak someone’s interest’ instead of ‘pique’ can be interpreted as a causative use of peak, that is, it means ‘to cause someone’s interest to peak’, just as ‘to walk the dog’ means ‘to cause the dog to walk’. Similarly, if the ‘sun peaks over the horizon’, the image could plausibly be of the sun moving towards its zenith.
That said, however, editors and alert readers will still regard the use of one spelling for the other as a mistake, and such use is not legitimized by dictionaries. The Merriam-Webster Concise Dictionary of English Usage sagely advises:
‘A writer needs to keep the meaning in mind and match it to the correct spelling.’
And in some cases, e.g. ‘peek someone’s interest’, it is difficult to think of a convincing semantic explanation.
Peak wrongly used
The main villain of the piece seems to be peak, perhaps because it is the most common lemma of the three. It often replaces peek (noun) in the collocations to have a peek, to sneak a peek, to take a peek.
A Google search for ‘take a peek’ in inverted commas throws up 14,600,000 results. It often seems to be used as a trite advertising trope, to titillate, tease, and tantalize the reader (That’s enough alliteration! – Ed) and make them imagine they are enjoying the privilege of an advance or exclusive look at something special, e.g. ‘Take a peek into the life of a nanny to the super-rich/into X’s exclusive Chelsea Home/into the new [fill in as appropriate]’. (Pass the sick bag, please.)
Searching for ‘take a peak’ also throws up vast numbers. Some are deliberate puns (e.g. ‘Take a peak: fun new places to stay in European ski resorts’), but many are instead by mistake for the peek spelling: ‘Take a peak through the keyhole of three beautiful festive homes’ [read ‘peek’] (This appeared in the online version of a newspaper on 18 December.)
Other examples from the Oxford English Corpus include:
That means no sneaking a
peak [read ‘peek‘] at work emails from outside the office, even if they are expecting non-work messages. Telegraph.
While one distracts a guard’s attention, the second – while pretending to be on the phone – can take a
peak [read peek] at the guest list and get some names which they can then use. Telegraph.
With the verb such substitution seems less frequent, but does occasionally happen, e.g. I kept
peaking [read ‘peeking‘] at my watch. Blog.
Peak as a verb is also used where pique is correct, as in the next two examples.
peaked [read ‘piqued’] my curiosity enough to buy the CD today during lunch. Blog.
Two aspects of Hox genes have
peaked [read ‘piqued’ the interest of phylogeneticists. American Zoologist.
TIP: A good grammar/spellchecker should pick up these confusions.
TIP: If you’re British, think of the Peak District, i.e. an area of high summits. (You will also find this spelled wrong, as The Peek District, but it is not very common.)
as a noun has an immensely convoluted etymology, as the OED explains, deriving ultimately from the Old English word piic, meaning a pickaxe, or pick for breaking up the ground. It was first used to refer to the pointed summit of a mountain in the early 17th century. Its metaphorical use to refer to the zenith or highest point of something is late-18th century. The verb use ‘to reach a peak or highest point’, e.g. prices, floods, etc., is modern: the first OED citation is from 1937.
This started life as a verb in the 14th century (the OED defines it as ‘To look through a narrow opening; to look into or out of an enclosed or concealed space; (also) to glance or look furtively at, to pry.’), and possibly derives from the word of similar meaning to keek.
(The OED points out the similarity of peek to peep and peer, words with the same/similar meanings Remembering that might help with spelling).
It became a noun by the common process of conversion, i.e. using an existing word in a different part of speech category, a use first recorded by the OED from a citation of 1636.
As its spelling might suggest, this word comes from French: from the Middle French word pique, meaning ‘quarrel, resentment’, which in turn comes from the verb piquer, ‘to prick, pierce, sting’.
The OED first records the noun in a letter of 1532 by Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief minister.
The verb is first recorded in a written source of 1664.
(You will also find the spelling pique for piqué, a type of stiff cotton fabric.)
The three words discussed become incestuously entangled in all sorts of ways, as the following examples demonstrate. If you want to try correcting them, the answers are shown at the end. These are all authentic examples from natural language, that is, NOT made up to illustrate the point.
- Star Clipper offers antique vessel aficionados an opportunity to take a peak inside this unique club for the modest cost of a 10-day passage. Boat (US).
- The sun was barely peaking over the horizon when he pulled himself from the bed. US fiction.
- He opened each door slowly and quietly, only so far as he needed to peak. British fiction.
- The reason that I’m asking is I’ve recently found my interest peeked in these two areas. Babelith Underground Forums, (Br).
- …they call me when they’re at the peek of it and they want to keep momentum going. CNN Transcripts.
- About 50 people take part in the annual grape harvest, just at the peek of maturity in order to bring in the grapes at the best possible moment to insure the highest quality wine possible.
- Inferno represents Argento at the pique of his technical and experimental prowess. DVD Verdict.
- …frankly we can’t afford for me to get head over heels into every little hobby that peeks my interest, otherwise by now I would have taken those horse riding lessons, violin lessons, and be a world famous ice-skater! Blog.
- at the peak of it.
- at the peak of maturity.
- at the peak of.
“peak, n.2 and adj.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, September 2020, oed.com/view/Entry/139282. Accessed 29 November 2020.
“peek, v.1.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, September 2020, oed.com/view/Entry/139673. Accessed 29 November 2020.
“pique, n.1.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, September 2020, oed.com/view/Entry/144464. Accessed 29 November 2020.
Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage, 2002.