Peek, peak or pique?

19 Mar

We have an extra value Troublesome Triplet today, with a look at peek, peak and pique. These all sound the same, but not only are they spelled differently, they mean very different things, too.  But this doesn’t stop them getting mixed up – presumably the fact that they sound the same overrides all other factors!

To peek is to look furtively or quickly, and the noun means a quick or furtive look. “I’ll just take a peek at your first chapter but I’ll read it properly later”; “She peeked in through his window and saw him reading a book”. Going along with this shifty, round-corners type of feel, to peek can also mean to protrude slightly so as to be just visible: “the end of the dog’s tail peeked out from under the duvet, revealing his location”.

Moving on (or up) to the peak, this is the pointed top of a mountain (or refers to a mountain with a peak) and in a similar way, a point of highest achievement or activity (“The peak of his achievement in running was winning a gold medal”), point in a curve or on a graph that is highest point, and, well, the brim at the front of a cap (it sticks out/up). The verb to peak means to reach the highest point (“the hits on my website peaked at 229 in one day and never achieved that heady height again”) and the adjective peak refers to maximum or utmost – “he’s at peak fitness right now, just in time for the big athletics meeting”) or characterised by maximum activity or demand – “phone call charges increase at peak hours”.  There is a secondary, archaic, meaning, from the 17th century, to decline in health and spirit – we use this one when we refer to someone as looking a bit peaky, if they look a bit pale and unwell.

Pique has two linked meanings to do with prickings and prickliness: it’s either a feeling of irritation or resentment resulting from a slight especially to one’s pride – “he stormed off in a fit of pique” – or refers to stimulating interest or curiosity, again with a little prick or prod: “he piqued her interest with his fascinating talk of shower sealant, and she resolved to take a plumbing course”.

So, in essence, “She piqued his interest in mountaineering when she scaled the highest peak in the range and peeked at him from behind the cairn at the top”.

You can find more troublesome pairs here and the index to them all so far is here.


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8 responses to “Peek, peak or pique?

  1. Vanessa Chapman

    March 19, 2012 at 10:44 am

    Thanks Liz – The title of this post piqued my interest and so I came over to have a peek. I hope I haven’t peaked too soon with this witty reply! 😉

    Oh dear, sorry, it’s Monday…

    Seriously though, I love how you’re tackling some of the less spoken about grammatical errors on this site. They are obviously things you must come across and it’s always good to have a reminder.


    • Liz at Libro

      March 19, 2012 at 10:46 am

      Thank you, Vanessa – and good use of the three words! I do get a lot of hits on these from web searches, so there’s obviously a need for a quick and concise definition and distinction of the words I write about – and I enjoy writing the examples and trying to inject a bit of humour where I can …


  2. C

    March 19, 2012 at 3:16 pm

    And because I like making up aides memoire…

    If you’re talking about Eying something, it’s spelled peek.

    If you’re talking about Ascending or Achieving something, it’s spelled peak.

    If you’re talking about Interest or Irritation, it’s spelled pIque.


  3. Adam

    May 2, 2014 at 3:23 pm

    Just found your blog … and I love it!

    I wondered if you’d had the pleasure of encountering @StealthMountain on Twitter. Their little biog simply reads:

    “I alert twitter users that they typed sneak peak when they meant sneak peek. I live a sad life.”

    Just brilliant! Their Twitter feed is a repetitive joy to behold!


    • Liz at Libro

      May 2, 2014 at 3:29 pm

      Ha – excellent – I hadn’t come across them but must of course follow them now. Thanks!



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