Q&A: Peak vs peek vs pique

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week we're sneaking a peek…

Q: Hello AWC, I was wondering if I could have a sneak peak at the topic we’ll be discussing today?

A: Not yet.

Q: Well, now you’ve definitely peaked my interest.

A: Okay, we have to stop you. You haven’t used “peak” correctly at all so far. First, it should have been “sneak peek” and you “pique” my interest.

Q: Pique? Are you sure that’s a real word?

A: Yes, we’re sure.

Q: It looks like the love child of a pig and a unique game of petanque.

A: No, it’s not.

Q: Or something picturesque that was involved in an accident and they were forced to amputate?

A: Sigh. The word “pique” comes to us from French for “prick” and–

Q: Because all French are p–

A: Careful. “Pique” means to arouse interest/curiosity or to irritate.

Q: The word means to interest and to irritate? That seems a bit odd.

A: You do know we’re discussing the English language, right?

Q: Oh of course, you’re right. Nothing to see here. Carry on.

A: An example would be having your curiosity piqued about an event, only to be piqued by the incompetent people running that event. The “curiosity” definition is used more.

Q: So something doesn’t “peak” your interest, it “piques” it?

A: Yes. Some people mistakenly use “peak” thinking your interest is at a high; a peak. That’s wrong.

Q: When I get my bank statements, I peek at my interest. Is that okay?

A: Haha, yes. Which brings us to “sneak peek”. “Peek” means to take a quick look, so it all makes perfect sense really.

Q: So why do so many get it wrong?

A: It could be a form of patternicity – when someone writes “sneak peak”, they are falsely drawn to the shiny mirrored effect of two “eak” words.

Q: Or people just forget “peek” is a word?

A: Yes it could be that too.

Q: So a quick way to remember them?

A: Grammar Girl suggests imagining the “a” in “peak” as a capital letter that resembles a mountain – peAk. Meanwhile, think of the double “e” in “peek” as two eyes. And finally, “pique” – well, it’s different enough to not need a rule. Just know that it exists!

Q: All this talk of peaks has me feeling a bit peaky.

A: Interesting. “Peaky” is used informally only in Australia and New Zealand to mean unwell or poorly.

Q: Not in the UK? But what about the Netflix show Peaky Blinders that conspired with my couch to steal my entire Sunday last weekend?

A: For that, “peaky” refers to the peaked caps of that era – circa 1920. Although a number of people do end up feeling rather poorly in that show.

Q: Oh, your use of “circa” has piqued my curiosity. Remind me what it means?

A: It’s typically used in front of a year or number to mean approximately or roughly. It’s direct from Latin for “around or about” and it is often shortened to “c.” in genealogies. E.g. “Alexander Hamilton was born c. 1757”.

Q: Okay, we’ve had a blinder but I think we’ve peaked. So can I now take a peek at the topic we’re discussing today?

A: Um, this was it.

Q: Oooooooh. Yes, of course.

Do you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore? Email it to us today!

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