Do you like to linger among multicolored maples? Do stands of flickering golden aspen raise your pulse? Yes, confess: Are you a leaf peeper? Someone who engages in leaf peeping?
It sounds like an illicit activity: Spying on scarlet liquid amber trees as though they were disrobing. Covertly snapping shots of golden gingko leaves, as if their fan shape signaled burlesque strippers. Where did we get that awkward term: leaf peeping?
Language is always in flux. The high-tech industry often bowdlerizes English, ruining innocent words like “cookies.” New terms come (selfies, vape, cosplay) and go (groovy, woke, grody). Terms are borrowed from other languages—emoji from Japanese, hygge from Danish/Norwegian. (And, by the way, Danish pastries in Denmark are wienerbød, or Vienna bread. You’re welcome.)
The popular autumn activity of admiring the changing colors of leaves—via a road trip, a hike in a forest, or simply a stroll through a park—signals an appreciation of nature. So why do we call it “leaf peeping”?
Where did the term leaf peeping come from?
“Leaf peeping” may stem from a Vermont term, “leaf-peeker” from the early 1900s. Not very helpful: “The peak of leaf peeking” mainly demonstrates how frequently homophones occur in English. According to the Massachusetts state library, “leaf peeper” debuted in print in a Vermont newspaper in 1966. Thanks, Vermont. (Is the term payback for being number 14?)
However, Webster’s says the first use was in 1965, a year that also gave us bogart, Ugly American, teenybopper, wheelie, stagflation, and zit. Every year brings new words. Some are keepers (zit is the essence of acne angst), some are sleepers (greenway and kiwifruit also debuted in 1965), and some are, well, peepers (as in duds). Their origin may be unknown (see zit). Anyway, leaf peeper has been with us for more than half a century and is not improving with age. Its use has increased but that is not necessarily a good sign (think liposuction).
For those who live in areas clogged with traffic in autumn due to visitors drawn by the color changes, “leaf peepers” is a less-than-flattering term. For others, it’s a handy marketing term to lure all those cider doughnut dunkers to their “quaint/charming” rural locales, monetizing the season. The term is inane (a word that has stood the test of time since the late 17th century).
We all know what a leaf is. Peep is less clear, although it has some dubious connotations beyond the basic “glance.” As a verb and noun, it can mean a feeble sound. And why “glance” if your goal is to take in the splendor of fall foliage? Peep in leaf peeping is slang for seeing or watching. But there’s the lurking connotation of “Peeping Tom,” which since the late 18th century has been another name for a voyeur, or as Webster’s alliteratively puts it: a “pruriently prying person.” It’s a criminal act. (The origin story for Peeping Tom cites some guy named Tom who supposedly looked at Lady Godiva when she rode naked through Coventry to protest high taxes. Godiva was a real person but her novel form of protest is legend.) Also making looking at leaves sound less than wholesome: “peep shows,” a euphemism for pornography venues in places like Times Square in the 1970s.
Basically “peeping” is commonly associated with something you shouldn’t do or be caught doing, which hardly applies to appreciating trees.
Autumn should signify more than a deluge of pumpkin-flavored foods and drinks. There’s nothing wrong with heading outdoors to admire the views.
So, what to call it otherwise? Autumnal Admiration Activity (aka triple A)? What does the rest of world outside of the United States and Canada say? In Japan, it’s kōyō or momijigari, which refers to autumn leaf hunting (an improvement, although hunting suggests foraging or killing). If we have forest bathing, another nature term borrowed from the Japanese, why not leaf drinking? OK, maybe not. Most of the world seems to get along fine without using leaf peeping.
We can either borrow a term from another language, something English is very good at doing, coin a new term, or do without. (There is, thank goodness, no spring “blossom peeping” in English.) Let’s retire “leaf peeping” as a label. Language is a living thing, like trees.