June 25, 2004

Harping back or harking back?

In an essay in Spiked, Dolan Cummings critiques some critiques of critiques of the modern world. He observes that these critiques of critiques all take the same rhetorical stance: the complainers are accused of 'declinism', looking back to a golden age that never existed.

He quotes from three anti-declinists, two of whom accuse their subjects of of harking back to a mythical past, while one uses the term harping back.

As he explains,

Leaving aside the question of whether one harps back or harks back to a golden age, clearly it is considered a very bad thing to do. The charge of utopianism works by portraying someone, often unfairly, as a hopeless dreamer, but accusing opponents of nostalgia for a golden age is an even dirtier trick. Not only are they deluded, but they are reactionary too, dreaming of the past rather than embracing the future.

But here at Language Log, we won't leave aside the question of whether one harps back or harks back. First Google:

harp back to
   hark back to
harps back to
   harks back to
harped back to
   harked back to
harping back to
   harking back to

So writers on the internet hark back about 48 times more often than they harp back. And a good thing, too, because that's the historically sanctioned idiom.

As the OED explains, hark back comes from a cry used to get the attention of hunting dogs, and if you want, you (or rather the dogs) can hark away, hark forward, hark in, hark off, or hark on as well.

hark, v.
. intr. Used in hunting, etc., as a call of attention and incitement, esp. in conjunction with an adverb directing what action is to be performed: hence denoting the action .

1610 SHAKES. Temp. IV. i. 258 Pro. [setting on dogs] Fury, Fury: there Tyrant, there: harke, harke. Goe, charge my Goblins that they grinde their ioynts.

a. hark away, forward, in, off: to proceed or go away, forward, in, draw off.


b. hark back. Of hounds: To return along the course taken, when the scent has been lost, till it is found again; hence fig. to retrace one's course or steps; to return, revert; to return to some earlier point in a narrative, discussion, or argument.

1829 Sporting Mag. XXIV. 175, I must ‘hark back’, as we say in the chace.
1868 HOLME LEE B. Godfrey xli. 225 Basil must needs hark back on the subject of the papers.
1877 CRUTTWELL Hist. Rom. Lit. 223 The mind of Lucretius harks back to the glorious period of creative enthusiasm.
1882 STEVENSON Stud. Men & Bks., J. Knox 349 He has to hark back again to find the scent of his argument.
1895 F. HALL Two Trifles 31 To hark back to scientist..I am ready to pit it against your agnostic.

c. trans. hark on, forward: to urge on with encouraging cries. hark back: to recall. [...]

d. hark after: to go after, to follow.

Where does harp back come from?

First, like any other eggcorn, it's very similar in sound to the original. Second, there is probably some resonance of the phrasal verb harp on, which the AHD defines as "To talk or write about to an excessive and tedious degree; dwell on." Many of the eggcorn examples use harp back to refer to someone's complaints about something, which might well be described as harping on it as well as harking back to it:

If ever you get a tiresome old relative harping back to the good old days...
These people lament the coming of the backpacker age, harping back to the sixties and seventies when you had to drop out of society to get on the trail...
Even when Grahame wrote it he was harping back to a time that he missed...
He made no new concessions and harped back to "bold steps" he had taken and India's non-response to them.
It is still very much harped back to because it was the first and the only full study of what was needed...

To my surprise, Paul Brians' list of errors doesn't have this one.

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 25, 2004 10:49 PM