Peep vs. Peek

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A reader asks,

What exactly is the difference between peep and peek?

The words are similar in meaning. In fact, peep may derive from peek. And peek may come from an earlier word that still exists in in Scots dialect and dialects spoken in northern England: keek.

keek: to look secretly, as through a narrow aperture, or around a corner.

peek: to look through a narrow opening; to look into or out of an enclosed or concealed space; (also) to glance or look furtively at, to pry.

peep: to look through a narrow aperture, as through half-shut eyelids or through a crevice, chink, or small opening into a larger space; (hence) to look quickly or furtively from a vantage point; to steal a glance.

Peep and peek are often used in connection with children, who “peek at Christmas presents” and “peep out from under furniture.” Shakespeare has Cassius use the verb peep to convey the idea that Romans had become as powerless as children compared to Caesar:

Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonorable graves. –Julius Caesar, I,2, 136-139.

Peep also means, “to emerge or protrude a very short distance into view; to begin to appear. For example:

Just then the sun began to peep over the eastern hills. 

Another word that may be related to peep is the verb peer:

peer: to look narrowly or closely, esp. in order to make out something indistinct or obscured; to look with difficulty or concentration at someone or something.

Here are some examples of the use of peek, peep, and peer from the Web:

She was afraid Arthur Kincaid would peek at the will, learn of the contest, and try to destroy the clues.

[The suspect] was arrested Monday after residents at a Gretna housing complex said they saw him peeping into several windows.  

[The use of iPads in trendy restaurants] solves the issue of diners having to peer at the menu in the dim lighting.

As for the reader’s question regarding the difference between peep and peek, I have to say that in most contexts they are probably interchangeable.

One difference is that peep is the usual choice when someone is attempting to see another person in an act meant to be private. For example:

A man working towards a PhD at Delaware University is in custody on suspicion of using spy cameras to peep [at] women going to the bathroom.

Because this kind of peeping is so common, states have what are called “peeping Tom laws” to punish it.

Note: The expression “peeping Tom” derives from the legend of Lady Godiva, the wife of Leofric, Earl of Mercia (d. 1057). The lady begged her husband to lift certain heavy taxes he had imposed on his tenants. He said he’d do so if she would ride naked through the streets of Coventry. With only her long hair to cover her nakedness, she rode through Coventry. The population respectfully stayed indoors and didn’t look, with one exception. A tailor named Tom peeped through his window. According to legend, he was immediately struck blind.

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7 thoughts on “Peep vs. Peek”

  1. When I saw the title, I imagined that “leaf peeping” would be featured. It’s a silly expression. There’s certainly nothing furtive or sneaky about viewing trees in full autumn color.

  2. Hi Maeve.

    You neglected to mention “peep” as an idiom for sound, utterance, voice, etc., as in the phrase “I didn’t hear a peep out of him all morning.” Growing up in my family such usage was (and remains) quite common.


  3. Nancy R.,
    I’d never heard the expression “leaf peeping” until now. You’re right. As there’s nothing surreptitious about the activity, the term doesn’t seem at all appropriate.

    It wasn’t neglect. There was so much to be said about “peep,” “peek,” and “peer,” I felt that a discussion of “peep” as a noun didn’t suit my purpose.

  4. Regarding the example, “Just then the sun began to peep over the eastern hills.” I wouldn’t have taken that as another meaning of peep, but as figurative use of the first definition, “to look through a narrow aperture, as through half-shut eyelids or through a crevice, chink, or small opening into a larger space.” So the Sun is peeping at us. Interesting.

  5. Hi Maeve
    I’ve just had two emails from reputable companies/non-profits offering me a ‘sneak peak’ at something:-)

    I recall the occasional use over here in UK of ‘peeky’, meaning ‘under the weather’, not feeling particularly well. What in Yorkshire they would call ‘nobbut middling’. But on looking it up, I see it has a US derivation, referring to a tree which is just starting to show signs of decay, and extended to apply to perceived human health.

    Thanks as ever for all your wisdom.

  6. @Tony Whittaker

    I believe that peaky, (with an ‘a’), in the sense of ‘under the weather’ is an old English term, and would be a step below ‘nobbut middling’.

    Peeky, (with the extra ‘e’), is of US derivation.

  7. > I recall the occasional use over here in UK of ‘peeky’, meaning ‘under the weather’

    Possibly deriving from “peaked” (adj) having that same meaning?

    > I’d never heard the expression “leaf peeping” until now. … the term doesn’t seem at all appropriate.

    I’ve always assumed that “peep” was used here more for the repeated vowel sound than semantic value. And, perhaps, a humorous allusion to a woodland critter–ephemeral, naturally.

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