Okay, listen up!
Which is it: hark back, harken back, or hearken back? Hark, harken and hearken all mean the same thing: to listen. And when you add back to each word, they again all mean the same: to go back to something earlier.
Remarkin’ on harken
So which do you choose? An online grammar site says that in news publications, hark back is used about three times more than harken back and is five times as common as hearken back. That’s because newspapers recognize only first meanings and not their variants. Harken back and hearken back are variants of hark back.
The hark Middle Ages
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.
And that’s the way it should be if provenance has anything to do with it. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary has hark back harking back to 1829, and hearken back waiting 104 years, to 1933, for an introduction into the language. A backless harken does go all the way back to the 12th century, but by 1739, it apparently was not in vogue as Charles Wesley penned the poem Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, later set to music as a Christmas carol.
But there’s a better reason to use the preferred hark back: It’s shorter than the other two versions. It has one syllable instead of two, and four letters instead of six or seven.
Still, the alternate versions pop up now and then in news accounts. Recently, The Associated Press reported, in a story about dating websites, that “newer apps offer a sense of immediacy and simplicity that in many ways harkens back to the good old days of just walking up to a pretty stranger and making small talk.”
Your cheatin’ hark …
Yeah, and in the good old days, news reports always opted for the simplicity of harks back. But outside of the news business, those days haven’t gone away. A guy didn’t back then, and doesn’t now, walk up to a pretty stranger and ask, “How far do you hark back?” If he does, he’ll likely be looking at her back. Which, come to think of it, might afford a nice view as the eyes move down … Oh forget it.