Metaphorical limitations

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A few years ago, I noticed an apparent boom in "Peak X" (see also "'Peak X' abides" and "Peak friend"), and reported concerns that the peak bubble might have burst ("Peak peak has apparently passed"). But a scan of recent news stories suggests that the peak X construction has established itself solidly in the journalistic lexicon. In addition to the obvious things like "peak foliage", "peak leaf season", "peak fire season", and "peak earnings", we can read about  "peak plastic", "peak crazy", "peak absurdity", "peak patent", "peak Fortnite", "peak grunge", and "peak First Take yelling".

In one of those posts back in 2014, I wondered why "there's no 'valley X' or 'trough X' corresponding to 'peak X'". And for that matter, why no "summit X"?

The OED treats "peak X" as an adjectival sense of peak, glossed as "Of a varying quantity, etc.: that has reached a peak; maximum, greatest; optimal, first-rate", or "Relating to or characterized by a peak; esp. (of a time, period, etc.) during which a maximum is attained", with citations back to "peak loads" and "peak-hours" in 1903:

1903 Electr. World & Engineer 23 May 866/2 It is necessary at times of fall and winter peak loads to operate the steam plants in the three combination sub-station and subsidiary steam plants which the company was operating three years ago.
1903 Electr. World & Engineer 9 May 789/1 The direct-current ends of these rotary converters are often worked in multiple with an old generating station..during the peak-hours.

But it's normal for nouns to be used as modifiers in English — we talk about "summit elevation" meaning the elevation at the summit, or "valley floor" meaning the floor of the valley.  So why don't we say "summit value" meaning the value at the summit of some time-function? Presumably because it's normal to talk about the peak of a function but not the summit of a function.

And why is that? Some metaphorical extensions of word senses are conventionalized, e.g. using peak to mean "a point (in time) at which a varying quantity (as traffic flow, prices, electric power, etc.) has reached a maximum; the measure of such a quantity at this point; the representation of such a point on a graph". There are analogous semi-conventionalized figurative time-function applications of dip, spike, crash, trough, etc.

So why not summit? Is there something about the base meaning that resists application to time functions? Or is there some sort of anti-conventionalization at work?

This is related to Patrick Hanks' observation that "strong tea" is a normal collocation, while "powerful tea" is unusual at best.

But the puzzle doesn't entirely end there, because we can talk about a trough in usage or a spike in usage, etc., but we don't refer to those concepts as as "trough usage" or "spike usage".  This may be related to the fact that peak can be used with a presupposition of uniqueness — "the peak of absurdity" works, while "the trough of absurdity" or "the spike of absurdity" don't, in the same sense. But it's not clear to me what's cause, what's effect, and what's just random correlation in this lexicographical tangle.




  1. 0rin Ed DeNiro said,

    October 13, 2018 @ 7:12 am

    I wondered why "there's no 'valley X' or 'trough X' corresponding to 'peak X'".


  2. bks said,

    October 13, 2018 @ 7:50 am

    I think we've on the upslope of "weaponize".

  3. AG said,

    October 13, 2018 @ 7:51 am

    it took some looking and it's obviously a very specialized and rare usage, but I've found phrases like "nadir peripheral blood cell counts" show up in chemotherapy lingo.

    Also, what about "I'm in tip-top shape"? Is that the same sort of thing as "peak x"?

  4. Gabriel Holbrow said,

    October 13, 2018 @ 7:57 am

    I may be rationalizing my perception of distinctions that do not exist in real language as it is used, but to me uses like "peak foliage" are a completely different meaning from the homophonous "peak" in uses like "peak plastic".

    "Peak foliage" is an older usage (from at least before my time) that simply indicates a maximum, as in the OED entry.

    "Peak plastic" is more recent, extended from the original "peak oil", and describes the point when a commodity (or something comparable to a commodity) starts becoming scarce enough to cause fundamental changes to a system that had become dependent on that commodity. "Peak plastic" is presumably a threat to the global manufacturing system, while "peak absurdity" is presumably a threat to the system of 24-hour political news.

  5. Gabriel Holbrow said,

    October 13, 2018 @ 8:06 am

    Having now actually read the articles that Professor Liberman provided in links from "peak plastic" and "peak absurdity" is see that my presumptions were incorrect.

    "Peak plastic" is when the remaining capacity of oceans et cetera to hold our plastic trash gets low enough to shock humanity's conscience and demand changes to our system of waste disposal.

    "Peak absurdity" (in this case) threatens the system of hype that seeks to promote driverless cars.

    But my larger point, about there being two different meanings of "peak" here, still stands, I think.

  6. Coby Lubliner said,

    October 13, 2018 @ 8:55 am

    I think that the antonym of "peak" in this sense may be "rock bottom"; I have seen recent references to "rock-bottom unemployment".

  7. Coby Lubliner said,

    October 13, 2018 @ 8:58 am

    But in any case there may be a preference for indigenous works like "peak" or "trough" over French borrowings like "summit" or "valley".

  8. Maude said,

    October 13, 2018 @ 9:06 am

    Doesn't summit work as a superlative (the highest point of mountain), while peak refers to the highest point in a larger context that can be sequential (a mountain range) or carries movement (peaks and troughs, a graph)?

    Peak-hours refer to given times during the day; however, in terms of superlatives, we could imagine the highest level of traffic recorded at other hours because of an unusual event, such as an evacuation or a concert.

    I think the "summit of absurdity" though describes these times quite well, as there have been so many "peak-absurdity" moments. When at the summit, we know we can't go any higher, peaks create insecurity as we don't know what's coming next.

  9. David L said,

    October 13, 2018 @ 10:09 am

    Powerful tea is odd, but powerful medicine seems OK (perhaps because strong medicine is more common in an idiomatic phrase?)

  10. Brian said,

    October 13, 2018 @ 11:19 am

    Perhaps the physical metaphor is the reason for the asymmetry. It's easy to see what the highest peak is in an area (especially when you're standing on it). But to identify the lowest valley in an area requires a lot more walking around in order to make comparisons.

  11. Theophylact said,

    October 13, 2018 @ 12:45 pm

    Today's Washington Post with the following lede: "Almost exactly 25 years ago, pop culture was at Peak Grunge."

  12. Y said,

    October 13, 2018 @ 2:45 pm

    Peak Oil was the first, I believe.

  13. Rick Rubenstein said,

    October 13, 2018 @ 3:01 pm

    At first I was going to comment that in these usages, "peak" is almost perfectly synonymous with "maximum", and that we don't have an everyday term which corresponds as well with "minimum".

    But then it occurred to me that "minimum X" is almost certainly less common than "maximum X" in everyday usage as well. (Caveat: I didn't actually put in the effort to verify this hunch.) So perhaps we are simply less concerned with minima than with maxima.

  14. DaveK said,

    October 13, 2018 @ 6:45 pm

    “Peak condition” in the sense of physical fitness has been around a long while. The opposite of “peak x” would be “rock-bottom x” but usually people just drop the metaphors and say “minimum”. Note that “maximum” gets clipped to “max” but there’s nothing equivalent for minimum” (“Mini” has a different meaning)
    I’ve never heard “powerful tea” but I’ve heard “powerful coffee” and “powerful cocktail”.

  15. Gregory Kusnick said,

    October 13, 2018 @ 8:00 pm

    Maude: "When at the summit, we know we can't go any higher"

    Not necessarily. At the summit of a mountain pass, we know we don't need to go any higher, but there are still higher places to go, namely the peaks to either side.

  16. Dominik Lukes (@techczech) said,

    October 14, 2018 @ 3:00 am

    I think the puzzle is more a result of an impoverished view of attribution as a purely logical operation equivalent to predication where we can replace phrases like 'white chocolate' with logical predicates white(chocolate). Therefore any way of ascribing the property of whiteness to chocolate should be equivalent. But there are at least 3 reasons why that expectation is wrong:

    1. As was already mentioned. Collocations are a feature of language and it is not unusual to find set ways of saying things: 'cats and dogs' does not occur in the same context and 'dogs and cats' – you could say it means different things. In the same way 'strong tea' and 'powerful tea' mean different things. BTW: If you google 'powerful tea', you get 2 results of how this is an impossible collocation and lots of other completely sensible uses (although COCA does not attest any).

    2. If we look at language from a constructional view (rather than purely structuralist in the broad sense), we will not find anything strange about a new construction 'peak N' appearing with a very specific meaning and history. Thus, of course, 'trough oil' is not going to be used. Just like we don't use 'reeat a pizza' for having a pizza again because 're' does not just have a meaning of 'again' but of doing something with the same object. Thus, as one commenter pointed out 'peak foliage' or 'peak earnings' is likely to have different meaning than 'peak oil' or 'peak hipster'. It is hard to search for 'peak N' because of the many confounders but most of the 14 uses of 'we've reached peak NOUN' attest this construction.

    3. Finally, interpreting predicates and attributes is not the same as concluding Y is p or p Y 'p(Y)'. Knowledge of the world is a part of it. Thus 'white chocolate' and 'white car' and 'white sheep' are brown in different ways. You cannot say 'the car has a black steering wheel, therefore it is not a white car' but you can say 'this is not white chocolate, it has too much brown in it'. The conceptual integration (blending) approach is quite useful. 'Spike in usage' blends the conceptual domain of the construction 'spike in' with that of 'usage' in ways that the construction 'spike N' does not. Partly because in 'spike N' the N is usually something with spikes: 'spike trap', 'spike pit'.

    One more note, I've puzzled over some missing metaphors here: My conclusion would be that the reason they don't exist is often coincidence. Why do Republicans hate the 'red' of communism but live in 'red' states?

  17. RP said,

    October 14, 2018 @ 4:54 am

    An interesting verbed usage of "peak-trans" has developed among the trans-exclusionary community at the UK website Mumsnet. I post this for its linguistic interest and not in endorsement of its views.
    For example here ( ) a commenter wrote: "My Dad has been peak transed by KW & Jacinta whatsit. He is completing the consultation."
    Here it is a transitive verb meaning something like "to bring (someone) to the point where they have had enough of trans rights activism or believe it has gone too far".
    I believe I've also seen an intransitive variation.

  18. Doug said,

    October 14, 2018 @ 5:13 pm

    >I wondered why "there's no 'valley X' or 'trough X' corresponding to 'peak X'". And for that matter, why no "summit X"?

    On the last point, most likely it's just because it has long been common to say that inflation/unemployment/whatever "reached its peak in September," while it's been rare for anyone to say "..reached its summit in September."

  19. ajay said,

    October 15, 2018 @ 4:46 am

    Doug, I think, is right here – I wouldn't normally use "summit" for the high point of a trend that varies over time.

  20. BZ said,

    October 15, 2018 @ 2:32 pm

    I find it odd to ask why certain metaphorical usages exist, while others do not. Do people even think of mountains when talking about metaphorical peaks? It's much more likely when coining new usages of "peak" to derive them from existing phrases like "peak hours" and "peak oil".

  21. mollymooly said,

    October 16, 2018 @ 6:54 am

    #1] 'obvious things like "peak foliage", "peak leaf season", "peak fire season", and "peak earnings"' — the first three of these would never occur to me in Ireland, evincing the influence of physical geography on culture.

    #2] My theory: the "peak" metaphor is not with the general sense of "peak", for which words like "summit" are synonyms, but rather with the specialised sense of the peak of a graph or mathematical function; used first as "peak oil" in the 1970s and then analogised to other things. "Peak oil", and hence the later analogies, describes a secular peak, rather than a mere cyclical peak like (I assume — see #1) "peak leaf season".

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