The Vocabularist: Have we reached peak "peak"?

Mountain peak in Chamonix Image copyright iStock

Ikea's sustainability director says people in the West have reached "peak stuff". It's a new peak in the use of the word "peak" itself, writes Trevor Timpson.

Steve Howard, from the Swedish furniture firm, said we might have arrived at "peak home furnishings".

It is 60 years since Marion King Hubbert used bell-shaped curves to illustrate his prediction that oil production would rise to a peak, and then decline. This gave rise to the phrase "peak oil", which many have now imitated.

And 200 years since Keats wrote that stout Cortez's men, "Looked at each other with a wild surmise, silent upon a peak in Darien."

The English use of "peak" as a common noun for a mountaintop appears in the 17th Century - though it had been used before that for other sharp or pointed things. The name of Derbyshire's Peak District is older, but is a slightly different use, referring to the whole region.

In the 16th Century "peak" was used for projecting parts of clothes and hats, sharp tools or weapons, and the point of a beard. In the earliest spellings you cannot tell it from "pike".

Once the meaning was extended to include the tops of mountains, it could be used as a metaphor for maximum, or supreme achievement - helped, when statistical graphs became familiar, by their mountain-like profiles.

The word was embraced by car industry public relations people, helping it to take its place in the vocabulary of hype.

Image copyright Alamy
Image caption Ikea - has the West reached "peak stuff"?

"Records broken by General Motors - output reaches new peak," proclaimed the New York Times in 1927. "Judging a car today means judging its PEAK performance," an advert for Riley cars in the Sunday Times insisted in 1933.

As well as pike, peak is related to old English words to do with tools and sharpness such as peck and pick.

Its use for mountains was surely influenced by the Spanish "pico". Several early uses of peak for mountains in English (and pic in French) refer to one summit in particular - the Pico del Teide of Tenerife, Spain's highest point.

Spanish dictionaries derive "pico" from the Gallo-Celtic word becco, meaning beak - which was known to the Roman author Suetonius, and gives us our word beak.

So are "peak" and "beak" related? Probably - but that's one of those questions which threaten a never-ending stream of word-associations.

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