Here’s another common one. If you take a quick look at something you may not be supposed to, are you having a sneak peak, or a sneak peek?

The answer is, of course, a peek. Wiktionary pleasingly defines a peek as “probably a fusion of peep and keek”, having come into our language around the time of Middle English. Taking a peak, on the other hand, is generally a sign of being an accomplished mountaineer.

That said, the award for history’s most successful ‘sneak peak’ must go to Oscar Santillan, not a mountaineer by profession, but an artist. Back in 2015, he hiked England’s highest mountain – Scafell Pike – enjoying the views, and kindly removing trash from other visitors on his descent.

Nobody noticed he had chipped off and stolen the highest inch of the mountain until it appeared in an exhibit in London’s Copperfield Gallery, with a plaque reading:

“An entire nation’s height is modified and its landscape redefined by means of a single precise action.”

Accordingly, there was an outcry – many people saw the move as vandalism, and demand for the peak’s return has been constant ever since. Speaking for Cumbria Tourism, Ian Stephens has said:

“…This is taking the Mickey and we want the top of our mountain back.”

Still, there is a chance Santillan may simply not have been sneaky enough. Suppose he had taken the peak and never told anyone. Who would have thought to re-measure the mountain for its missing inch, or make an attempt to chase after the rock thief?

Whatever your opinion on mountain theft, this is a simple way to remember how to deal with a common error. Yes, the problem may be phonetic – if you just used ea in sneak, perhaps your brain automatically wants to use it for the same sound in p-ea-k? Still, if you’re after a subtle peep or keek, you’re sneaking a peek. If you’re up a mountain with a chisel, there’s a strong chance you may be a sneaky peak thief.

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