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TWTS: Don't get into a pique over "pique"


The word “pique” recently piqued the interest of one of our listeners.

Colin Williams wrote to us after seeing the phrase, "As the president's pique became increasingly evident..." in a New York Times article.

Williams says: “I’ve heard that something can 'pique your interest,' but the noun version is definitely new and different to me.”

The noun and verb forms of “pique” are related. The noun form comes into English first, from French, meaning a “quarrel” or “resentment.” Professor Anne Curzan found some great old timey-sounding examples like “a pique among the Abbotts” and “a lady who is in a pique with her executors.”

By the 16th century, “pique” comes to refer to a feeling of anger, irritation, or resentment. This meaning is similar to how we see the noun form used today. Here’s a 1669 example from playwright John Dryden: “Pray, my lord, take no pique at it.”

This example from 1998 may sound more familiar to our modern ears: “Jockey Richard Guest huffed off in a fit of pique after being accused of taking it a little too easy on one of his mounts.”

The verb “to pique” also comes from French. It comes from the French term “piquer.” In English, it first means to irritate or make someone resentful. A little later on, it starts to mean to provoke someone to action or provoke a feeling in someone.

That’s how we use it now — something can pique your interest, your fancy, your curiosity, etc.






Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of Weekend Edition at Michigan Radio. She also co-hosts Michigan Radio’s weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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