Peak. Peek. Pique. All of them can be used as a noun or verb. All of them mean something different. Good writers must know which word is which. Otherwise, they’ll come up with blunders like these:
- He left in a fit of peek.
- I peaked out the window.
- That really peaked my interest.
Peak is usually used as a noun. It refers to some kind of tapering or projecting point. The peak of a mountain, therefore, is the summit. You see the mountain going up on one side till it gets to the top. Then it visibly goes down the other side. The whole mountain can be called a peak.
Not only mountains have peaks, though. A hat can have a peak. So can a beard, or the roof of a house, or all kinds of things. When you beat an egg white and lift the egg beater, it should leave peaks.
Metaphorically, a peak can also be the highest level of development or intensity. Before the stock market fell in 2008, it reached its peak. Likewise, vegetables can reach a peak of perfection. Flowers can reach a peak of beauty. Political candidates can reach a peak of voter acceptance, and if it comes too soon before an election, they might lose to someone else.
And so we come to “peak” as a verb. The losing candidate may have peaked too early. The same can happen to a racer who fades on the last lap. Something peaks when it is formed into a peak (as in the egg whites) or when it reaches a peak in one of the other senses.
This spelling also works as an adjective. Something can be in peak condition or achieve peak efficiency. Energy debates can be concerned with something called peak oil, which means that the amount of oil already taken from the ground has reached a maximum; if we have indeed reached peak oil, it means we can’t produce any more and eventually, like the mountain top, oil production will have to go down.
Let’s see. I have put these three words in alphabetical order, so “peak” comes on the tip top. Think of that when deciding which to use. If in any sense you want to convey the concept of a tip or a top, use “peak.”
(Unfortunately, there is another word with the same spelling that means to get sick, especially if it leaves you pale or emaciated. It’s a verb I see in the dictionary, but I don’t remember hearing anyone use it or seeing it in anything I’ve read. I have heard of people who look peaked. That’s peak-ed, two syllables, not “peakt” like the other word we’ve just looked at.)
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Peek has to do with seeing. See and peek both have double ee’s. That might help to remember when you need this one.
A peek is a short look or glance. Rolling through interesting scenery on a tour bus, I only get a peek at things I’d really like to look at longer. If I have no business looking at anything but want to be nosy, I might sneak a peek (not a peak!)
If I peek at something, then, I am looking quickly and maybe furtively. So the word can be used either as a noun or a verb. There is no adjective form of peek, however. No matter where you stand on environmental issues, you can depend on this: we’ll never come to peek oil!
Pique means basically to simulate. It most often serves as a verb, which comes from an Old French word that means to prick. That may, in turn, come from a Latin word meaning to peck like a woodpecker.
If you have read this far, then perhaps the two misused words in the title piqued your curiosity. You just had to read this post in order to satisfy it. Curiosity, interest, and anything else that might be piqued are direct objects. And so pique, in this sense, is what we call a transitive verb. The word means something a little different if it’s intransitive, that is, if it doesn’t take a direct object.
Pricking and pecking don’t seem to be particularly pleasant experiences. If I’m piqued at something, it’s bound to be something I resent or find annoying. That brings us to the noun. It’s a feeling of irritation or resentment. More specifically the resentment comes from wounded pride. If you’re insulted by something, you might be tempted to leave the room in a fit of pique.
So, do you mean peak, peek, or pique? Learn the difference and you will no longer entertain people like me who enjoy chortling at misused language. But you will gain the respect of anyone who values good and accurate writing.
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Photo credit: Some rights reserved by Brian Gautreau