Peek, peak, and pique are homophones that often give trouble to writers, be they amateur or professional, learners or otherwise. The immediate odd one out is pique, with its French spelling (like unique, antique, critique), so we’ll deal with it first. I’ll provide mnemonics to help you remember the three words and avoid mixing them up.
The noun pique means ‘an annoyed feeling’, so the set phrase fit of pique refers to a bout of annoyance – a minor tantrum. As a verb, pique means ‘to offend someone slightly’ – you could be piqued by someone’s comment on your misspelling. The verb is also used in the phrase pique someone’s interest or curiosity, where the sense is more like provoke or inspire.
The idea of provocation or annoyance can be used as the basis for a mnemonic. If you play Scrabble, think of how annoying the Q tile can be. If you don’t play Scrabble, pretend you do. Or connect pique to quarrel or querulous, using the Q they have in common to remember when to use that spelling.
Peek is a more familiar word. As a verb, it means ‘to look at something quickly, especially secretly or from behind something’, or ‘to appear slightly from behind or under something’ – as the sun does, from behind clouds. A peek (n.) is a quick look, with the same connotations. In the common phrase sneak peek (‘sneak preview’), the mixing of –ea- and –ee- probably contributes to the common error *sneak peak. To remember the spelling peek, in sneak peek or any other context, think of the two e’s as eyes in the middle of the word, peeking.
Peak is by far the most common of the three words (a graph of their relative usage in Google Books shows a pleasing peak for peak). It has a range of senses having to do with the highest or most successful point. A peak can be a mountain, the top of a mountain, or the top of a graph. It can also refer to a time when someone or something was at their most successful or powerful – their figurative peak.
To peak (v.), similarly, means to reach the highest amount, level, or standard. Phrases that use peak include off-peak, peak oil, and peak time. This meaning explains why people sometimes write the eggcorn peak one’s interest instead of pique one’s interest – they may picture that interest peaking. To remember when to use the spelling peak, think of how the capital letter A is like a mountain. Picture the spelling as peAk, if that helps.
Do you ever confuse peak, peek, or pique? What mnemonics do you use to remember which is which?