Word War: Pique vs Peak vs Peek

Today’s installment is a three-way word war among pique, peak, and peek—all enemies and pet peeves of editors. These homophones send writers into a spiral of uncertainty when it comes to word choice, particularly in the context of one expression: when something excites you and captures your attention, does it pique, peak, or peek your interest?

The answer is pique. It means, among other senses, “to excite (interest, curiosity, etc.),” as in “The beer-batter and bacon cupcake they served during the wedding piqued my curiosity.” The term can also be used to mean “to affect with sharp irritation and resentment, especially by some wound to pride.” This, of course, is another form of excitement, if undesirable.

A peak, on the other hand, is “the pointed top of something, such as a mountain.” When speaking figuratively, a peak is the highest or most important point or level, as in “Being recognized as a top fan of certain fan pages is the peak of people’s online lives.” As a verb, peak (past tense peaked) means “to attain the highest point of activity, development, or popularity,” as in “This author peaked in the 1990s.” In in the 2000s, we’ve even taken to using peak as an adjective for a kind of point of saturation: “With so many dishes available, I can decide what to order. Has this restaurant reached peak menu selection?”

The third participant of this war peek means “to look or glance quickly or furtively, especially through a small opening or from a concealed location,” as in “Before the performance, he peeked out from behind the curtain, and took a deep breath to steady his nerves.”

How can you remember which homophone to use? Learning the subtleties in meaning is only half the battle; remembering which term to use in which context is what counts. One trick to remembering the difference, as cheesy as it might sound, is to use the letters of the words themselves. For example, the Q in pique: Q is one of the least used letters in the English language, which makes it unique, or one might even say exciting. This association might help you remember that pique with a Q means “to excite.” Here’s another tip: if you associate the two Es in peek with the two Os in look, you should have no trouble keeping this one straight.

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