Is it peek, pique or peak? Some writers genuinely confuse these words. Don’t worry. You can move towards Better Writing — one word at a time.
In my work as an editor, or just in general reading, I see words and phrases used wrongly all the time. When the same mistake crops up several times in one week, that’s when I pounce.
As you can imagine, the collection is growing, and mistakes like these come in very useful for practice activities in Better Communication learning sessions, and for writing articles.
Peek, pique, or peak
Here are three examples I saw this week:
‘Now my curiosity is really peeked’.
‘It peaked my interest’.
‘He was really peeked’.
In each case, the writer should have used the word ‘piqued’. It’s French, from the verb ‘piquer’, which means ‘to prick or sting’ (literally and figuratively).
In English, we use ‘piqued’ to mean ‘aroused’ (referring to your curiosity or interest) or ‘stung’ (not literally), as in stung with indignation or anger; this latter meaning is what the third example, above, was trying to convey.
You might have heard someone who has gone off in a huff described as ‘having a fit of pique’, or feeling the ‘sting’ of hurt pride.
‘Peaked’ is the past tense of ‘to peak’, which means to reach a high point.
For example, ‘Her sales figures peaked mid-year’.
You might wonder, though, about this odd expression used by British English speakers:
‘He’s looking a little peaky’, which means he looks tired, worn out or ill.
We usually explain this by saying that ‘peaky’ – in this sense always used as an adjective – refers to the thinness, pointedness or sharpness of features in those who are sick or ‘wasting away’.
‘Peeked’ is the past tense of ‘to peek’, which means ‘to take a sneaky look’ at something.
The word means much the same as ‘peeped’. Both seem to have come from Middle English words, ‘piken’ and ‘pepen’, which are possibly related to similar words in Dutch.
We translate the French phrase ‘Qui s’y frotte s’y pique’ as ‘Whoever rubs up against this will get pricked’.
Commentators often wrongly associate it with King Louis XII of France, probably because he used a porcupine as one of the emblems on his coat of arms. In fact, the expression originates from a much later date, towards the end of the 16th century.
This French phrase is also the motto for a squadron in the Canadian Airforce, a regiment in the French Army, and several sporting clubs.
Some English expressions that mean roughly the same thing are: ‘If you play with cactuses (cacti), expect prickles’; ‘Play with fire and you’ll get burned’; and ‘If you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas’.
Perhaps you can think of others.
Contact me if you’d like to know more about common writing mistakes and how to fix them.
Shortly, I will release Better Writing, the first book in my Better Communication Series. Let me know if you’d like to have a copy.