The Grammarphobia Blog

Dwindle, peak, and pine

Q: In a screenplay I’m working on, an older, Southern man tells another he looks peaked. Apart from having to think hard about whether the second syllable should be pronounced – script readers need help – I wonder about the origin of the word. Is it a regional term or just something an older person might say?

A: When the adjective “peaked” means sickly, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), it’s pronounced as two syllables, accented on the first: PEE-kid.

However, American Heritage says the adjective can be pronounced as either one syllable (PEEKT) or two (PEE-kid) when it means ending in a peak or pointed.

Oddly, the Oxford English Dictionary says the word in its sickly sense, which it dates from 1809, is pronounced as one syllable in both the US and the UK.

But it’s clear from spellings in some of the citations in the OED that the writers intended a two-syllable pronunciation. Here are a few examples:

1836, from Thomas C. Haliburton’s novel The Clockmaker: “I am dreadful sorry, says I, to see you … lookin so peecked.”

1860, from Oliver Wendell Holmes’s The Professor at the Breakfast-table: “He looks peakeder than ever.”

1914, from R. B. Cunninghame-Graham’s Scottish Stories: “It seemed as if my aunt might have gone on for ever, getting a little dryer and her face more peakit, as the years went by.”

A much earlier adjective with the same meaning, “peaking,” was first recorded in the early 1600s. And two more came at around the same time as “peaked”:  “peaky,” from 1821, and “peakish,” from 1836. 

The OED says “peaked” (which isn’t labeled as a regionalism, by the way) is apparently derived from an old verb “peak,” meaning “to flag or fail in health and spirits; to languish, waste away; to become sickly or emaciated.” 

This old verb, which dates from around 1580, seems to be unrelated to our more familiar verb “peak,” meaning to reach a peak of performance or to be formed into a peak.

The “sickly” verb, whose origin is unknown, is rarely heard today, except in this Shakespearean phrase intoned by one of the witches in Macbeth: “Wearie Sev’nights, nine times nine, / Shall he dwindle, peak, and pine.”

Shakespeare’s phrase has been much quoted and paraphrased over the years, as in this 1995 excerpt from Opera News: “The drama component … quickly dwindled, peaked and pined.”

It appears in a poem by Coleridge (“Off, wandering mother! Peak and pine!”), and it even shows up in a verse of the song “Clementine”:

“Then the miner, forty-niner, / Soon began to peak and pine. / Thought he oughter join his daughter, / Now he’s with his Clementine.”

If you’d like to read more about words with pronounced “ed” endings, we had a recent blog entry about the subject. The adjective “peaked” is one of the words we discussed.

Buy our books at a local store, Amazon.com, or Barnes&Noble.com.