You look, uh, mahvelous.

Dear Word Detective:  Why do we refer to someone that is ill or not healthy as looking “peaked?” “Peak” means “at the pinnacle.” Seems like “peaked” should mean “to be at one’s best.” How did this meaning come to be? — Garry.

Yo, grasshopper, there is no “should.” There is only “is.” Or “does.” Whatever. Anyway, the universe doesn’t have to explain why it does what it does. That’s why I’ve spent my life cultivating that most un-American of traits, a high tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty. Simply put, the pictures on the menu never look like the food you end up with, so why agonize? Why not just trust the waiter, whose name, I believe he said, is Doug?

But seriously, folks, determining why a counter-intuitive use of language arises is often more difficult than herding cats, and I say that as a board-certified cat herder. (Pro tip: get one of those battery-powered hand vacuums.) In the case of “peaked,” fortunately, there is actually a plausible rationale for why it’s used to mean, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines it, “sickly looking.”

The whole saga begins with the noun form of “peak,” which first appeared in the early 16th century. Curiously, “peak” actually arose simply as a variant of the English word “pike,” which dates back to Old English and was formed from roots carrying the general sense of “sharp point” or “pointed object; spear.” In English, “peak” acquired a variety of meanings centering on the idea of “something sharply pointed,” from the “peak” some folks have at the front of their hairline (as in “widow’s peak”) to the pointed top of a mountain. This “mountaintop” sense led to the development of “peak” in a figurative sense meaning “highest point of achievement or success” or “point of greatest amount of measurable flow, etc.” The verb form of “peak” appeared in the late 16th century and has been used to mean both “rise to a peak” (either literally or figuratively) and “to attain maximum intensity or value.”

The adjective “peaked” is based on the noun “peak,” but here things get a little weird, because there are actually two separate “peaked” adjectives in English. The earlier, which appeared concurrently with the noun, means, logically, “rising to or appearing to have a peak,” as one might speak of a “peaked roof” or a “peaked cap.” This “peaked” is usually, at least in the US, pronounced as one syllable (“peekt”).

The other “peaked” didn’t appear until the early 19th century and was originally a regional colloquial term in Britain. The full definition in the OED, to which I alluded earlier, gives a clue to the logic of this “peaked”: “Sharp-featured, thin, pinched, as from illness or undernourishment; sickly looking.” And there’s your answer. We refer to a sickly-looking person as “peaked” because illness frequently causes weight loss and a haggard, wasted appearance resulting in “sharp” (i.e., bony) facial features, making the nose, chin, etc., appear to end in sharp points (“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,” 1914). Lack of proper nutrition can, of course, also lead to a “peaked” appearance, so advanced age or serious illness are not prerequisites for being “peaked” (“The children looked peaked and unhealthy,” 1992). In general use, in fact, a person exhibiting nothing more than a sickly demeanor or a bilious aura is also often described as “peaked” (“Bill looked a bit peaked after his third helping of clams”).

So while this “peaked” doesn’t mean that you’re having your best day ever, there are “peaks” involved. Incidentally, this “peaked” is, in the US, frequently pronounced in two distinct syllables (“peek-ed”), which is handy when your pal says “I’m peaked” and you’re not sure whether he means that he’s on top of the world or at death’s door.

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