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Onto today’s episode!
These four words present an interesting group. They are related by sound only, true homophones. Two are English and one has multiple meanings, one is Oriental, and one is French. They are all from the last half of the previous millennia, and two have been in use in the English language for less than 200 years.
Peak is a widely used word, it functions as a noun, verb and an adjective. It has a history going back several hundred years in the English language. It is also an archaic word with a rather startling twist, as we shall see later. At the core, it means top or point, like a mountain or a career. It also can refer to a person’s or group’s abilities or popularity. It has many synonyms such as summit, climax, acme, and zenith to name a few. It can refer to facial features such as a widow’s peak or the peak of a beard.
In the United Kingdom it can mean the stiff brim of a cap. It can also refer to an extension of a sail on a sailing vessel.
In one sense perhaps, peak is its own antonym, an opposite meaning in health. In the early 17th century it was part of a phrase “peak and pine” that meant to shrivel or waste away. We have William Shakespeare to thank for that. Perhaps, he was making a joke, and we are simply too removed in space, time and culture to appreciate it.
Peek has a multi-century history as part of the English language, as does the previous word. It is a slightly sneaky word, it means to take a quick or furtive look. We can peek around a tree, we can peek into someone’s background (the internet has made that easier than ever in a number of ways), and play peek-a-boo with a child. It is a singular word in usage and definition.
Peke is our word from the Orient, it is the youngest word of this group in the English language. It is an abbreviation of Pekingese, a small dog with long hair, short legs and a pushed in nose. This lapdog was introduced in the 1860’s to Europe from Pekin, China; now known as Beijing. It was a very popular dog with the aristocracy of both civilizations. It is common for Pekes to have difficulties with breathing.
Pique is one of many words that have dual citizenship in both the English and French language. It actually has a split personality because it can be pronounced two different ways, more on that later. Primarily, from the middle of the 16th century, it means to feel resentful or irritated because of a perceived insult. Some synonyms are petulance, indignation and vexation. It can also be a verb and means to stimulate or irritate, it can be either positive or negative.
The second pronunciation is not a homonym to the others: “peekay”. It is from the same time approximately as Pekingese, and it means a stiff fabric woven in a raised or ribbed pattern. The literal translation of the French is "backstitched".
There they are, four words with identical sounds, an entangled history and rather unrelated definitions. If you choose the wrong word the reader will feel like they hit a speed bump and might drive off your road. Do all in your power to prevent that from happening. Use beta readers, critique partners, proofreaders and editors to ensure that your work is error free.
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