Sunday, June 22, 2003

I'm sorry, I have to say this. I'm sure you would never make this error, but I've seen it made. It really drives me nuts when people write something like "The interpersonal drama in issue 37 really peaked my interest".
  • I'm sure most people know what 'to peek' means -- to look furtively, to peer through a crack or a hole. "He peeked curiously through the shades." Thankfully, I rarely see "this really peeked my interest" -- and if I do see that I assume it's simply a spelling mistake or typo, not an indicator of sloppy English thinking.

  • We also usually know what 'peak' means as a noun. As a verb, it is related: it means to reach a maximum. So why isn't it right to say that "the interpersonal drama peaked your interest"? Because the verb 'peaked' doesn't take an object. This sentence would be complete as "The interpersonal drama peaked." Or to be clearer, "In issue 37, the interpersonal drama peaked." Got it? It's the subject of the sentence that reaches its peak, not the object. The phrase "peaked my interest" tacks an object onto a verb that doesn't take an object and is meaningless. Worse, it causes confusion. As a reader, I can't tell if your interest was aroused and may have grown after issue 37, or if your interest was at a maximum in issue 37 and declined thereafter. It's an important difference.

  • The word we need here is "pique". It means to prick, to arouse, to excite (among other things). This verb takes a subject, the "interpersonal drama" for example, which is pricking, arousing, exciting something. What is the interpersonal drama piquing? It's piquing one's interest -- the object of the verb. So the correct sentence is "The interpersonal drama really piqued my interest." Sadly, this meaning seems to only be used in the context of interest or curiousity. I did look around and find that one's prospects can be piqued by a change in the situation, and one's career can be piqued by a trip abroad.

  • What if you really do mean to say that your interest reached a maximum? Just make your interest the subject of the sentence. For example, you could say "My interest peaked when the interpersonal drama intensified in issue 37." Just remember that implies the maximum, that after issue 37 your interest declined. That's because 'peaked' also means to dwindle away. If you mean that your interest began to grow after issue 37, then you must use 'pique'.

  • Another interesting meaning of 'piqued' is annoyed. When a person is 'piqued', we can tell what the word means in this context because the subject is a person, not a quality which can increase or decline or be aroused. But you'd better not say "I was piqued by the interpersonal drama in issue 37" unless you mean that it annoyed you.

This matters to me because English (or any other language, for that matter) is full of subtlety. "Pique" implies either aroused or annoyed, and "peak" (as a verb) means maximized, and the language is richer for having all these meanings. We can communicate with each other more effectively if we understand and make use of these subtleties. Language is already ambiguous enough without choosing the wrong spelling.

Definitions taken from Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary.

Update: With sophisticated understanding of word meaning, we can have fun. The article about a man's career piqued by a visit to the Spice Islands is a cute pun because it makes me think of 'piquant' which means 'spicy'. A poem with the title "Piqued" could have three meanings. Is the poem about somebody who is annoyed? Or is it about somebody who is aroused? Without either a subject or an object in the title, the meaning is left ambiguous. Perhaps it's even a homonymic reference to 'peaked' as well, since the poem says "I was once a strong man... the clock has kept on ticking, ticking | and, I cannot stall the decline of me." Well that's a good example of somebody who has peaked. Whether or not the author intended all meanings in the title I can enjoy the wordplay. Or look at this quilt, which uses peaked points (a specific technique in quilting which creates triangles like peaks) but the quilt is named "Piqued", a reference perhaps to emotions either inspired by or having inspired this quilt. And this work is just beautiful -- I've never seen a poetic work that was created simply by highlight certain meanings from two words a dictionary and using those two words together in a bittersweetly ambiguous phrase.

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