Hark! What is that idiom?

Today’s headline “Gas prices harken back to Katrina” raises an interesting idiom issue. The phrase is usually hark back, meaning to recall an earlier time or to return to an earlier topic of discussion. Johnny Carson used the idiom in his monologue sometimes when he said (I am paraphrasing from memory), “I hark back to my boyhood days on the plains of Nebraska.”

Both hark and harken (and its variant hearken) mean to listen. Hark back began as a hunting term, according to Merriam-Webster Online. Hunters used it to direct the hunting party and the dogs to go back along a route to try to pick up a lost scent. Merriam-Webster reports that the variation harken back cropped up in the 20th century. Bryan Garner in his “Dictionary of American Usage” calls harken back and hearken back “needless variants” of hark back.

The Columbia Guide to Standard American English finds a difference between hark back and harken back. Both involve going back, but with harken back there is an added element of heeding.

Here is a link to an English professor’s explanation of the origin of hark back.

This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.