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Friday, October 29, 2010

Spelling mistakes: Piqued by peeking at a peak

An extraordinarily common spelling mistake is "sneak peak". Since a peak is a mountain, it would be pretty difficult to sneak one anywhere. What people mean is "sneak peek". I know they are being influenced by the -ea- in "sneak" (and truly English spelling is sadistic in cases like this), but that's no excuse. Whenever you find yourself using this phrase, STOP! and think about the spelling.

What is the difference between peak, peek, and pique?

A mountain or something that looks like one (whipped egg whites, for instance) or a metaphorical high point is a peak. It can also be used as an adjective, as in "peak condition", and a verb, as in "athletes train to peak for the Olympic Games".

A quick look is a peek. This can also be used as a verb, as in "he peeked around the corner". If you have a hard time remembering that it's spelled with a double e, think of other words that have to do with seeing things: see, seek, peer, even leer if that helps (hey, whatever it takes...)

If you're angry or resentful, you're having a fit of pique. If something makes you interested, it piques your interest. This is a fairly old word in English, coming from Middle French pique a quarrel, resentment, which in turn came from piquer to prick, pierce, sting.

It is apparently quite common for people to misspell "pique" too, writing "it peaked my interest", possibly thinking that the phrase means "bring one's interest to a high point". But it doesn't mean that. Perhaps thinking of the etymologically related word "piquant" will help. Food that is piquant stimulates your appetite for more, just as something that piques your interest makes you want more.

So if taking a quick look at a mountain makes you want to know more, you could say your curiosity was piqued by peeking at a peak!

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  1. Thank you for reminding folks about these three words. I, too, regularly encounter "peak" when the writer intended "peek." When typing the latter, I have always found it helpful to remind my fingers to think of the word "eyes": I am going to peek with my two eyes. The two e's in the word "peek" represent my two eyes. Also, the word eyes has two e's. Anyway, a couple of other ways to remember it.

  2. That's a really good suggestion. Thanks, JMA!

  3. The latest parent's newsletter I received from Disneys' Club Penguin offers a 'sneak peak' at what'scoming up. There's not much hope for the spelling if thats the sort of contribution Disney are going to make, sadly.


About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.