If you’re reading this right now, you probably use the internet. Or maybe you’re an eccentric, old oil heiress who pays her stable of amanuenses an extra stipend of vintage nickels to print out and read aloud the day’s most thrilling digital content as a fun break in between sessions of transcribing your forthcoming memoir, I’m an Old-Ass Oil Heiress and I Can’t See. Either way, let’s assume you go online from time to time? OK. I’d like to discuss one of the newest yet hoariest tropes in internet writing, a trope I would like to murder, if only I could find a tool designed to destroy nonsentient turns of phrase. I’ve reached a peak in being angry about the word “peak.”
As I survey headlines and Twitter, in this year alone, we’ve allegedly reached “peak” for the following things: brazen hypocrisy, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, America, geek, Dwayne Johnson, multiculturalism, Jeremy Corbyn, standing desk, Gay Twitter, Drake, Beyoncé, vape, cheese, millennial, app, sequel, TED Talks, hipster, smartphone, “food ridiculousness,” meme, rainbow, and, somehow, “bottom.” Last year The Verge declared that we “reached Peak Strong Female Character.”
Peak’s charms are evident. “Reaching peak X” is the pointy-bastard cousin of restoring faith in humanity, nailing it, and slaying. It’s a quick way to slap a superlative on anything, which is appealing for people who want to grab attention and declare expertise, especially within a character limit. “Peak” doesn’t only mean “important” — it means relevancy is cresting as we speak. It has urgency. It implies a forthcoming plummet. Know this right now or don’t bother knowing it at all!!!!! is peak’s mantra.
The Language Log, a long-running linguistics blog, traced the origins of “peak” as slang to the phrase “peak oil” in 2008, tying it to writer John Cole’s use of the phrase “peak wingnut” while discussing online political skirmishes during that election year. “John Cole’s idea was that the level of extreme right-wing sentiment in online discourse has reached a maximum, and is poised to enter a terminal decline,” linguist Mark Liberman wrote. (Reading about that idea in 2016, when the Republican front-runner is posting anti-Semitic memes on Twitter, is existentially upsetting, but let’s carry on.)
The Guardian claimed that we reached peak “peak” back in 2014, but to take this whole mountaineering analogy way further (higher?) than it needs to go, “peak” is still an ascendant cliché, surfacing regularly. One of the most obnoxious aspects of declaring something “peak” is that it’s not just acknowledging that something has risen in popularity — it is also implying that it won’t get more popular — valleys follow summits.
It’s only a matter of time before Clinton declares peak Trump or Trump declares peak Clinton or Bernie Sanders nibbles his watercress sandwich into the shape of a mountain range and then falls asleep. (Since this April, The Guardian has also claimed that we have both “reached peak pensioner” and “reached peak superhero.”)
“Peak X” construction serves a second purpose, beyond hyperbole: It’s a corny shortcut to appearing fluent in internet-speak. I, regrettably, have taken it upon myself to proclaim both “Peak Rob Ford” (2013) and “Peak Printable Instagram Novelty Products” (2014). It’s also dead-easy to use and appealingly vague: X can be literally anything anyone is talking about at the moment. Slap “peak” in front of any word and you have a thesis about The Way We Whatever Now, in the same way that “Uber for X” was a formula for introducing startups a few years ago.
I wish “peak” was over, that it was free falling, yowling like Tom Petty as it approached a gaping abyss, into which it would disappear and rot alongside other internet catchphrases of yesteryear. But within the last 24 hours, we may have “reached peak engine.” Climb every mountain, I guess, but if I see another “peak X” headline configuration, I’m going to kidnap national treasure Jon Krakauer and hold him for ransom until this nightmare is over.