Welcome to yet another bout of Word Nerd, the weekly feature where we examine, explain and illustrate confusing words. Let’s get to it, shall we?
This week we have a threefer.
Peek: to look quickly or while trying not to be seen.
Peak: the pointed top of a mountain, or the pointed top of anything else, or the highest, maximum or most important point, degree, level or volume of anything.
Pique: to irritate or provoke resentment, or to wound or excite or provoke an emotional response.
They all sound the same, but they come from different sources, as is usually the case.
Peek originates in the late 14th century from the word piken “look quickly and slyly,” of unknown origin. Back then, the words peek, peep, and keek (keek?) all meant the same thing. Peep still shows up in terms like “peeping tom” and “peep show,” so it’s taken on a slightly creepy subtext as opposed to peek.
Peak comes from the word pike, meaning “sharp point.” A pike is a tall spear-like weapon that used to be fairly common in the days before guns; you may sometimes hear someone threaten to have somebody’s head on a pike. The term peak originates in the 16th century, of uncertain origin. By the late 1500’s, it had come to refer to the top of a mountain, and by the 1800s it had been used to refer to the top or highest point, both physical and metaphorical.
Pique comes from the French word piquer, meaning to quilt or pierce, though it also meant a prick, sting or irritation. By the late 1600s, it meant to excite or provoke someone to anger.
If you refer to a sneak peak, you’re talking about a mountain that can creep up on you.
If something peaks your curiosity, you’re saying you have never been more curious about anything ever in your life.
If you’re performing at your peek, you’re getting really good at covering your eyes and looking surreptitiously between your fingers.