What’s the Word?

What’s the Word?

Welcome to my new feature, in which I write about my love of words and my fascination with their origins, meanings and usage.

Words that sound the same, but that are spelled differently, are called homophones. One set of homophones  includes the words “pique,” “peek” and “peak.” All sound the same, but of course mean different things. And because they sound the same, they are often misused.  Another trait these three words share is that they serve as more than one part of speech. Take “peak” for example. It can be a verb, meaning to reach the highest point. Or it can be a noun, meaning that highest point. Peak can even be an adjective, to describe one’s best performance.

The next word that sounds the same, “peek” can also be a noun or verb. To peek means to steal a look at something (“Don’t peek.”). As a noun, it means to take a peek, or sneak a peek, maybe when you’re not supposed to.

And lastly, “pique,” derived from French, is a verb and a noun.  The meanings of the word, as different parts of speech, are related. As a verb, “pique” can mean to arouse curiosity or irritation (or even anger). As a noun, the word is often used in the phrase “a fit of pique,” meaning the irritation aroused by a slight. In both cases, an emotion is aroused.

How might these words be used in a sentence? “My curiosity was piqued after I took a peek inside the book.” Or “My parents were piqued when I took a peek at—and shook—the presents underneath the Christmas tree.” Another example is “I thought it wise not to take a peek at a friend’s face, when at the peak of my pique (irritation) with her remark. Her annoyance might be piqued by my frown.”

I hope that that the interest of wordsmiths is “piqued” by this peek at three oft-confused words that sound the same, but have different meanings.

Source for word meanings and usage: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us, accessed 11/30/15.

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