Today’s topic is for those who want to impress others with their verbal prowess.
Quite often I hear or read the term “hearken back.” Sometimes it is spelled “harken back.” For instance: “Michael Bublé hearkens back to the crooners of my parents’ generation.” This usage isn’t necessarily wrong — unless, of course, you believe language should never change — but it isn’t necessarily right either.
Strictly speaking, the term should be “hark back.” Let me explain why.
According to grammarist.com, “An old sense of the verb hark (which mainly means to listen) was used in hunting with hounds, where the phrase hark back denoted the act of returning along the course taken to recover a lost scent. This is the origin of the modern sense of hark back, which means to recall, to return or to retrace one’s steps.”
“Hearken” and “harken” also mean to listen, but since they don’t have the hunting history that “hark” has, they don’t really work with “back.”
Yes, usage has become corrupted over time so that these two words have sort of been adopted into the “hark” family, and if you use them, people will understand what you’re saying. But some language purists will cringe. So, if you want to be technically correct, use “hark back.” If you do, your verbal skills will hark back to a time when people were more careful with their speech.
Roger Terry has been a professional editor for 25 years, has written five books (three fiction, two nonfiction) and numerous articles, essays, short stories, book reviews and newspaper columns. He is a sports fanatic and an unrepentant chocoholic.