I was watching the movie "In the Line of Fire" (1993) with Clint Eastwood and Rene Russo. In one of the scenes, Russo tells Eastwood, "you were looking a little pea-ked out there", meaning tired/fatigued/physically overwhelmed.

That's the only usage I've found of the term, and Google lists this as a North American usage. Where did it come from, and why is it pronounced that way?

  • 4
    Interesting. The Oxford English Dictionary only transcribes a monsyllabic pronunciation, but some of the citations it gives seem to provide evidence of the disyllabic pronunciation: "He looks peakeder than ever," "It seemed as if my aunt might have gone on for ever, getting a little dryer and her face more peakit"
    – herisson
    Commented Apr 9, 2017 at 21:58
  • 1
    It came from the past tense of the nearly-obsolete meaning of the verb peak: to grow thin and sickly; to dwindle away. And like blessed, ragged, aged, learned, the two-syllable pronunciation from Early Modern English hasn't entirely died out (although it apparently has in the U.K.) Commented Apr 10, 2017 at 0:47
  • In the UK, it's more common to use "peaky", as in: "you're looking a bit peaky".
    – calum_b
    Commented Apr 10, 2017 at 17:58
  • @calum_b I'd say peaky means a little ill, while peaked is more like physically exhausted. But that could be sampling error on my part as I don't hear either very often, and they're obviously very close.
    – Chris H
    Commented Apr 10, 2017 at 18:15

1 Answer 1


Its usage is from the early 1800s and refers to peaked meaning "sickly-looking". The pronounciation in two distinct syllables is common in AmE.

  • “Peaked” with the connotation you are referring to 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.

  • 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.

(The Word Detective)

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