Verbal Energy

Take your pick of pique, peak, and peek

The Monitor's language columnist looks at a group of words that are more closely related than you might guess.

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People who regularly review school or job applications sometimes develop little shortcuts to help them make decisions faster. When my dad was looking to fill certain entry-level positions in his office, any candidate who could spell separate correctly was as good as hired. It was on that middle "a" that so many applicants slipped up, he said.

More recently, a British journalist confided to me that "independent" was the word that, if misspelled, would consign an application to the recycle bin. He was a senior editor at The Independent, and so he had reason to care. (Applicants therefore had reason to care, too, but evidently not all did.)

More recently still, a reader has written to note how often, when reviewing scholarship applications, she sees "peaked" where "piqued" is needed. When people write about their passions or interests in a career or job getting more elevated, well, peak might seem right. But it's not.

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These two words are related, however. In fact, they're part of quite a large family. To explain what I've found out about them, though, let's start with two other parts of the clan: pick and pike. Long used interchangeably, the terms referred to some sort of weapon, a pikestaff or pickax, and they seem to be related to the French verb piquer, meaning to pick, prick, or pierce. That verb, in turn, comes from an even older French noun, pic, meaning sharp point or spike. So these nouns generally refer to various sharp objects, and the verbs refer to actions of the sharp objects.

Pick out seems a pretty nonviolent verb to convey the idea of selecting. But when you "pick out" shrimp from the buffet, you may be literally impaling them. Your frilled toothpick is a latter-day descendant of the picks, pikes, and pics in use on the battlefields of medieval England and France.

But if "picking" became choosing in English, the equivalent French verb, piquer, retains its essential idea of jabbing. Une piqure can be an insect sting or an injection. When we take the verb back into English, as when we say someone's interest or curiosity is "piqued" (rhymes with creaked), we mean it's been jabbed somehow. Visualize this one as a friendly elbow in the ribs: "Hey, take a look at this!"

Ah, but not all piques are alike. To have one's interest piqued is one thing. To be piqued oneself is to be angry, ticked off, indignant.

We think of peak as meaning summit or high point of a mountain. But etymologically it means "sharp point" – another cousin of all those pikes and picks. What about feeling, or looking, piqued or peaked? Either can be correct, but they mean different things. To look ticked off or angry is to look piqued. But someone who "looks peaked" (two syllables) looks sickly or thin. The usage goes back to when Shakespeare was a pup, but its origin is unclear. "Perhaps from 'peak' in sense of 'become pointed' through emaciation," is what the Online Etymology Dictionary offers.

And what about peek? It's not related to these other words, but so often confused with peak that it's always worth checking. To keep them straight, I imagine PEAK all in caps, with the "A" as a little mountain peak, and the two "e's" of peek as two eyes glancing sideways. No mnemonic is too dumb if it works.

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