Piqued bleached

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Bruce Finley, "Wildfire haze, record heat and pollution combine to make Denver air quality dangerous for all", Denver Post 8/25/2020:

Colorado public health officials issued a special “multiple pollutants” alert through at least 4 p.m. Tuesday. Health authorities focused most urgently on the harm from inhaling tiny “particulates” spreading in the smoke from burning forests and grasslands. California’s big fires brought more smoke, thickening the haze from the four major fires still burning across more than 193,000 acres in western Colorado. […]

These particulates piqued concerns because they easily waft inside homes and vehicles, penetrate masks residents wear to combat the coronavirus, cannot be exhaled, and quickly enter bloodstreams to cause broader harm. [emphasis added]

I've noticed that in current usage, pique has been almost entirely bleached of its original emotional content. Merriam-Webster's entry recognizes this, at least partly, by giving the word's first sense as "to excite or arouse especially by a provocation, challenge, or rebuff", with "to arouse anger or resentment in : IRRITATE" in second place.

The OED's entry (updated 2006) has the opposite order, with  "To wound the pride of, irritate, or offend; to make resentful" in first place,  "To take pride in or congratulate oneself on" in second place, and  "To stimulate or provoke (a person) to action, esp. by arousing jealousy, etc.; to arouse (a feeling, esp. curiosity or interest)" last.

The OED's etymology underlines the interesting collection of emotions involved — annoyance or anger when the stimulus comes from the outside, pride when it's internal:

Etymology: < French piquer to anger, annoy (1458 in Middle French), (reflexive) to get angry (c1590 in Middle French), to stimulate, provoke (1615), (reflexive) to take pride in, boast about (1623), specific uses of piquer to prick, pierce, sting (see pick v.1). Compare Occitan picar (reflexive) to be offended, Italian piccare (reflexive) to be offended (a1342), to anger, provoke (1611), (reflexive) to pride oneself in (1615), Spanish picar to anger, provoke, (reflexive) to be offended, to pride oneself in (a1496 in the latter sense).

But all of these negatively-evaluated emotions have evaporated in most current usage. In Denver, interest has been piqued because of danger; in the first five (other) examples in the Google News index, it's opportunity, enjoyment, or plain old curiosity:

[link] Whales Investors Interest Piqued: Is Bitcoin About To Rally?
[link] Why Nikola is piqued by the fragrance of Musk
[link] While he’s used to singing ballads, recently pop and R&B music have piqued his interest.
[link] The origin of life on Earth is a topic that has piqued human curiosity since probably before recorded history began.
[link] So if your interest on this interest is piqued, here are some answers to questions about when and how this money may arrive.

This kind of semantic bleaching is common, e,g. "Ask Language Log: 'Incredible'", 7/18/2018.



  1. Rob Grayson said,

    August 26, 2020 @ 7:56 am

    At least it's spelled correctly here. I've lost count of how many times I've seen "peaked" instead of "piqued".

  2. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 26, 2020 @ 10:19 am

    If anything, I would say the bleaching process has already gone so far that "piqued" seems affirmatively odd in the Denver context precisely because it's too mild a word to use for a concern involving this sort of potential threat to health and/or physical safety.

  3. Michael said,

    August 26, 2020 @ 12:58 pm

    Actually, what catches my eye is the use of "bleach" as a verb, not in reference to shirts or other linens. When I google "to bleach something of meaning," I get definitions that only seem to apply to laundry, but here it seems to be being used to mean "to drain the meaning out of something," similar to how certain gaming communities use "nerf" as a verb (eg: "taking away energy drain completely nerfs the vampire as an opponent in D&D.")

  4. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 26, 2020 @ 1:19 pm

    @Michael: if you look for the specific technical phrase "semantic bleaching," you can find uses in the google books corpus back to at least 1979, and I daresay that if you had a corpus of old articles from scholarly journals focused on linguistics (generally MIA in the google books corpus) you'd find earlier uses than that. 1979 by coincidence happens to fall right into the fairly brief period of my own life in which I played D&D and I don't recall that usage of "nerf," which may have arisen subsequently.

  5. Trogluddite said,

    August 26, 2020 @ 2:03 pm

    My impression is that when "piqued" is applied directly to a person, it seems to retain more of the original emotional colour than where it is applied figuratively to abstracts such as "interest"/"curiosity"/"concern" etc. In fact, the figurative idioms strike me as rather clichéd; which suggests that their over-use has at least played a part in bleaching the component word.

  6. Brett said,

    August 26, 2020 @ 2:22 pm

    Merriam-Webster orders its definitions by their judgement of how important the definitions are in current usage, with the most prominent definition of a term coming first. The OED orders them strictly by which the order in which they are attested. So the only thing that the definitions being in a different order means is that (Merriam-Webster's judgement of) the most import meaning is not the earliest know.

    @J.W. Brewer: The use of nerf to describe depowering game elements probably dates to the 1980s, but it did not really become big until the 1990s, when video games started to be regularly updated, meaning the overpowered elements in one version could be "nerfed" with the release of an update.

  7. KevinM said,

    August 26, 2020 @ 7:55 pm

    @Michael: "Bleached" seems like an acceptable, indeed expressive, metaphoric usage. The bonus is the undertone of "leached."

  8. cameron said,

    August 26, 2020 @ 8:42 pm

    "nerfed" is new to me as well. I guess that's a good example of a trademark that's been genericized, and then verbed. Or perhaps it went straight to being verbed

  9. Viseguy said,

    August 26, 2020 @ 9:37 pm

    Prick is a perfectly good Anglo-Saxon verb for "interest"/"curiosity"/"concern", but pique is so much more gentil.

  10. Philip Taylor said,

    August 27, 2020 @ 2:37 am

    I wonder whether "to nerf" is derived from "to ennervate".

  11. Rodger C said,

    August 27, 2020 @ 6:55 am

    @Philip Taylor: I would have assumed, as cameron apparently did, that it is derived from the foam-rubber weapons. Also, did you mean "enervate" or "innervate"?

  12. Philip Taylor said,

    August 27, 2020 @ 7:03 am

    "enervate" ("[to] make (someone) feel drained of energy or vitality.") — unlike Mark, I can't blame my keyboard for this error unfortunately !

  13. Michael Watts said,

    August 27, 2020 @ 8:27 am

    Saying that something "piqued concerns" is odd to me just because "concerns" isn't a valid object for "piqued". Interest is what gets piqued. I don't think it's a coincidence that the 5 citations are 3 "interest", 1 "curiosity", and 1 that is unintelligible.

    I've never associated "piqued interest" with any emotion other than interest; I know the expression "fit of pique", but would not have considered it related.

  14. Trogluddite said,

    August 27, 2020 @ 8:55 am

    @Rob Grayson
    Spelling error or word-choice error, I wonder? If the figurative idioms with "curiosity"/"interest"/etc. were best known to someone via speech, I can see why they might assume the far more common word "peaked". Its sense of "reached a high point" seems plausible in most contexts where the idioms would be used, especially where it can be interpreted literally as, e.g.; "my [degree of] interest was maximised by [stimulus]".

  15. Haamu said,

    August 27, 2020 @ 3:53 pm

    @Philip Taylor:

    I wonder whether "to nerf" is derived from "to ennervate".

    Unlikely. As others have noted, "Nerf" is a well-known (in the U.S., at least) brand of foam-rubber weapons. When "to nerf" was acquiring its gaming sense, that community was dominated by a demographic that grew up with Nerf toys. My guess is they would have been far more familiar with the "Nerf" trademark than with the word "enervate."

    My own usage is strongly tilted towards the adjectival ("enervated," "enervating"), while "to enervate" as a transitive verb barely registers, so it seems like a stretch that it might spawn the strongly transitive "to nerf."

    Perhaps more to the point, "to enervate" suggests a draining process, as you indicated — a gradual weakening over time. A much closer synonym for "to nerf" would be "to cripple." It's usually a decisive act by game developers, occasionally an unintended side-effect of some other change, but always sudden in its impact: a game is patched or a new version is released, and instantly the weapon, spell, monster, or whatever appears obviously weaker. There are no in-between stages and no sense of anything being drained. Instead, it's been whacked.

  16. Philip Taylor said,

    August 28, 2020 @ 3:45 am

    OK. I had never heard of "Nerf" and thus failed to register the allusions thereto both by Cameron and by Roger C, thus just went with my gut instinct that "nerf" could have been derived from the verb "to enervate".

  17. Andrew Usher said,

    August 28, 2020 @ 7:47 pm

    That leaves still the origin of the brand name 'Nerf' in question; it does not appear completely made up. I doubt, though, that it came from 'enervate' or any related form. Anyway some familiarity with the term is practically universal in the US, and surely, I'd think, there must be equivalent toys elsewhere.

    For the subject of the thread, I'd want to say this is clearly a _new use_ of 'pique', that goes with one specific context, and seems hardly related to the old use given in the OED (which did give us 'fit of pique'); it seems plausible it could have come from a misunderstanding of the old use, but how exactly?

    And as to 'bleach', the linguistic use can indeed seem strange to ordinary people; I don't think 'bleach' is regularly used like that, though 'leach' may be. It seems there must be in this case, too, a spread of the 'new' usage from a single source, though here likely an intentional metaphor.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo.com

  18. Philip Taylor said,

    September 1, 2020 @ 2:21 pm

    "this is clearly a _new use_ of 'pique', that goes with one specific context" — new, perhaps, but not unique. The following dates from 2014 —
    "for some conservative politicians, the arrival of Ebola here has piqued concerns about the security of the southern border"

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