Suffering From Homophonia? Part 3

Image"I knew a peek at the peak would pique my curiosity." No, that's not something anyone would ever say, but it does illustrate proper usage of three of the most commonly confused homophones.

  • "Peek" (a verb and a noun) denotes a stolen glance: "I have a present for you, so close your eyes and don't peek."
  • "Peak" (also a verb and a noun) signifies the top of something: a mountain peak, the peak of Poco's popularity.
  • "Pique," a word borrowed from our friends the French, is explicated thus (by Merriam-Webster):

1. noun: a transient feeling of wounded vanity: RESENTMENT, "a fit of pique"; synonym, see OFFENSE

2. transitive verb; etymology: French piquer, literally, to prick; to arouse anger or resentment in; IRRITATE, "what piques linguistic conservatives" — T. H. Middleton; to excite or arouse by a provocation, challenge or rebuff, "sly remarks to pique their curiosity"; PRIDE, "he piques himself on his skill as a cook"; synonym see PROVOKE

3. noun; etymology: French piqué, from past participle of piquer to prick, quilt; a durable ribbed clothing fabric of cotton, rayon or silk; decoration of a tortoiseshell or ivory object with inlaid fragments of gold or silver — but, unless you're a fashion writer or royal couturier, this doesn't come up much.)

Here are some easy ways to figure out if you want "peek," "peak" or "pique."

Peek: Note the double e, which also appears in "see," which means something akin to "peek."

Think of a Frenchman poking you with a stick.

Peak: Unless they've been victimized by mountain-top removal courtesy of evil Appalachian coal-mining concerns, most mountains have a peak. The word "mountain" contains an a and many mountains are shaped like an a, thus you want the homophone with the a in it (handily, there's no a in "peek" or "pique").

Pique: The French can lend a hand here, too, as the word "pique" sounds like a native French speaker saying "pick," as in ice pick, toothpick, afro pick, all of which you can use to poke someone. In so doing, you are likely to cause resentment and offense (both cited in the definition above) — you may even induce a fit of pique (the noun form). You may also arouse anger or irritation or, especially, provocation (again, see above), in which case you may "pique" (the verb form) any number of emotions (particularly curiosity). So when it's "pique" you want, think of a Frenchman poking you with a stick. Works for me anyway.

And now:

Peek Freans (since 1857), named for James Peek and George Hender Freans: (quoting from the Kraft Foods Web site) "Peek Freans Classics — seriously simple elegance with tastes to 'Peek' your interest. Here are the legendary varieties that have made Peek Freans the favorite of serious cookie lovers for well over a century. Crispy, flavorful taste sensations that are perfect with any beverage, dessert or simply alone. A wonderful selection that's a must for the discriminating customer." (NOTE: This copy is not Editorial Emergency-approved.)

Of course, peek, peak and pique are just the tip (peak) of the iceberg. There's principal and principle — about which it still holds true that "the principal is your pal." "Principal" can also mean "main," "key" "chief," "primary" or "foremost," as in the principal dancer of a ballet company or the principal violinist of an orchestra.

Principle, on the other hand, is an idea that guides you, something to live by, a code of governance. It's synonymous with "precept" and "tenet." "Using the word 'overwhelm' as a noun goes against all my principles."

Then there's "shudder" and "shutter." "Shudder" is a verb — "She shuddered in the frigid wind"; "I shudder to think what might happen if you don't hire a professional editor" — and a noun — "A collective shudder passed through the audience when the life coach said, 'supposibly.'"

A "shutter" is also a verb — "After Larry won the lottery, he shuttered the novelty shop" — and a noun — that thing that keeps the sun out of your house or enables your camera to capture an image. A shutter opens and closes, or, I should say, it opens and shuts; a shudder does not. Remember that, and you'll know when you need "shutter" and when you need "shudder."

Next time: Malapropisms — you know, when people say "distract" when they mean "detract," or "antidote" when they mean "anecdote." How it makes me shudder.