Thursday, September 25, 2008

peak-a-boo

Peak: pinnacle, highest point, acme, summit, apex, etc. We know the term well from many contexts, including:
  • "in peak health" (#). This expression is so well known that a surprising number of medical facilities play on it (#)
  • "at peak [commuter] hours" (#)
Then along came peak oil, which introduced (? -- or at least popularized) a subtle difference in how the work peak is used, as suggested by the definition in the article:
Peak oil is the point in time when the maximum rate of global petroleum extraction is reached ...

Peak in this sense seems to gobble up a bit more meaning than just "apex"; as used here, it seems to mean "upper limit of the (easy) availability of [commodity]." And sure enough, this usage can be generalized:

Where else do we see this usage?

Update 10/14/08: John Cole uses the term Peak Wingnut in a political blog, which is then deconstructed somewhat (mostly the "wingnut" part) by Mark Liberman on the Language Log under the title "Peak X."

7 comments:

Wishydig said...

i think we see it when a career has peaked or when patience has peaked. that sense of 'can go no further' and the inevitable descent.

WordzGuy said...

That does seem to be the same sense, yes. We can't use it exactly the same way, tho -- we can't (yet?) say "peak career" or the like. Any thots?

Pat J said...

At least these usages are better than "you've peaked my curiosity" [shudder].

WordzGuy said...

> better than "you've peaked my curiosity"

Yeah, that's how "loosers" spell it. :-)

astrotter said...

In this case, the choice of "peak" almost certainly comes from the common usage of the word by mathematicians and scientists when referring to maxima of a function, especially when plotted on a graph. Whoever coined this phrase no doubt had in mind a graph of "the rate of global petroleum extraction" versus time. I'm a scientist, and I use "peak" as both a noun and a verb in reference to mathematical functions all the time: e.g., "The cosine function peaks at even multiples of pi." Funny, I can't think of a similar word for minima. Valleys? Troughs? Not so much.

astrotter said...

More relevant to this thread, I should add that "peak" is sometimes used as a modifier, but usually only for nouns that describe a quantity that varies with time or space, as in "peak luminosity" or "peak temperature". This is obviously a case of abbreviation of "peak [oil] production". I agree that "peak [concrete noun]" sounds strange. I can't even begin to imagine "peak carrot".

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