Choose the Right Word: Peek, Peak, or Pique
As online writer-publishers, we have the responsibility of being our own editors and proofreaders. Even with the tools offered by technology, such as spell-check and grammar-check, there is a point where online editing - or any sort of article editing for that matter - requires human intelligence, if it is to be effective.
Among the most common of mistakes is the misspelling of homophones - words that sound the same but which have different meanings, and which may be spelled either the same or differently.
Some errors in spelling or word choice are a result of speed or a failure to check ourselves; some mistakes result when the writer does not actually know the difference between various words, particularly when the words are homonyms or homophones or just loosely similar.
Here we'll take a look at three little words – peek, peak, and pique – that can be troublesome to keep separate, and we'll try to develop some cues to help writers remember which word has which meaning and how to spell "whichever which" they intend.
In addition to examples of misuse, an improved version of each, and some explanations for each word, you will find some tips, some in the form of mnemonics, to help make it easier to remember which word is which.
Peek vs. Peak vs. Pique (word choice; perhaps misspelling)
Peek, peak, and pique all sound exactly the same, and some of their meanings actually have a bit of overlapping – to a certain degree. It seems, in the misspellings I have seen, that the default is peak. What I mean is: when someone is not sure which word to use, they often just spell it as "peak." But as writers we certainly will convey meaning best if we use spellings that are associated with the exact meanings we intended.
First actual mistaken example: I forgot about them this time, but I will take a peak at them soon. [Corrected version: I forgot about them this time, but I will take a peek at them soon.]
Peek (verb) means to look at something secretly, perhaps through a little opening (a peephole) or from a hiding place. It means essentially the same thing as peep. The word peek came into Middle English from Middle Dutch (therefore, hundreds of years ago) and actually does share some of the same history as peep. Peek and peep both can also be used as nouns ("Let me take a peek!").
The correct spelling of peek (with two e's) is the same as the first part of peekaboo – and that might help you, if you can remember how to spell peekaboo. Or, you might consider that if you notice someone peeking at you, you would very likely scream "Eek!!" – two e's, just like peek.
Second actual mistaken example: The history of earth says all top predators got extinct at the peek of their rule! [Corrected version: The history of earth says all top predators got extinct at the peak of their rule!]
Peak can be used as a noun or as a verb. It refers (in most of its meanings) to something that is pointed: a mountaintop or summit, a pointed cap, a point in the hairline at the top of the forehead ("widow's peak"), any kind of projection, or any high point (the "peak of perfection," for example); as a verb, to peak means "to project."
But, in one of those interesting quirks of the English language, peak is a word that can actually convey opposite meanings. To peak (verb) can also mean to become weak or sickly – just the opposite of reaching a summit or high point! The verb form may not be as commonly used as the adjective peaked (pronounced pee-kid) - or sometimes even peaky - which means pale and/or sickly. (When Jack reached the peak of the hill, Jill said he looked a little peaked.)
Like peek, peak has its origins in a Germanic language, specifically Middle Low German (fairly closely related to Dutch). It referred originally to a pick (noun) or a pike. Funny how peak, pick, and pike all sound alike, isn't it? That's one clue that sets etymologists on the path to discovering word origins and relationships.
One tip that may help you to remember the correct spelling of peak is to think of it this way: peAk. Maybe that capitalized "a" will look enough like a mountain that it will remind you that peak refers to something pointed or to a summit – unless, of course, it means just the opposite.
Does Josep Pique' look like he's in a pique?
Why not "peak" your interest?
Isn't there something of a rationale for speaking of "peaking one's interest"? After all, wouldn't we hope to raise someone's interest to previously unimagined heights - to "peak" it?
Perhaps so. But in order for that to happen, interest must first be piqued. And besides, some writers might not actually want to "peak" their readers' interest, because if that happened the readers might start to look elsewhere in order to satisfy their curiosity and interest. Besides, once interest has peaked, it will begin its downhill slide. Is that what you are trying to communicate?
Logically, it could make sense to use peak and interest together in a situation such as this:
J. K. Rowling first piqued her readers' interest in the world of magic with Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (aka Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone). Interest in wizardry and witchcraft eventually peaked, however, and after some time passed it began to wane in favor of the Next Big Thing.
Third actual mistaken example: On sites that we do not have a stake in, I see no reason not to click on an ad that peaks your interest. [Corrected version: On sites that we do not have a stake in, I see no reason not to click on an ad that piques your interest.]
Now finally, we have the somewhat pesky little word pique. It just looks like a bit of a prima donna, doesn't it? It has numerous meanings, all somewhat related to the idea of sharpness. As a verb, it can mean to cause irritation or resentment; to wound (like pride, for example); or to provoke someone to action. Often these days, though, it means to excite interest or curiosity (maybe to irritate in a good way, to spur?). As a noun, it refers to that feeling of being irritated or affronted, experiencing resentment or wounded pride.
Guess what? Pique shares some of its heritage with peak, pick, pike, peck, picot, piqué, and even picket. All of these words took different paths, through different languages (Dutch, Flemish, Middle Low German, even French), and arrived in English at different times. But you can hear their common ancestry; and you can detect in their meanings a common thread.
What about a mnemonic for remembering the meaning and spelling of pique? -- Well, that fancy spelling does look kind of "sharp," doesn't it? It does look as though it might be a bit irritated if it were spelled wrong, doesn't it? It does look kind of exciting and perhaps it spurs you a bit, makes you a bit curious to see it spelled that way. Maybe? Perhaps you can remember the –qu– by thinking of a picky mosquito which might pique you with its proboscis; or you may find that a whole pile of questions might pique you in a way, if you're not in the mood to answer them.
I hope you have enjoyed this peek at the meanings of peek, peak, and pique.
I hope that climbing to one peak of knowledge has not peaked you and put you in a pique!
I hope this will pique your interest to investigate many other words: their spellings, their multiple uses, and their etymologies. And I hope your curiosity and interest will help to raise your writing to a peak of perfection. If that happens, I just may take a peek at some of your Hubs and websites and learn some great things from you.