Language is constantly evolving. Words that once were common fall from grace. The accepted definition of a word can change over time. Words that once meant “up” might now mean “down,” and heaven only knows what “objective” means these days. New words enter the language every day, in many cases in a stealthy if not downright cunning manner. Lexicographers bemoan the swelling ranks of undocumented words.
Evolving language helps explain why, for example, to a baby boomer’s ears, a millennial can sound like a Martian. (I personally believe many of them came from the Andromeda galaxy.) Teenagers, of course, are another matter entirely, and in some cases, anti-matter entirely.
This evolution also readily explains why Shakespeare is Greek, or possibly Latin, or maybe Ye Olde English, to modern ears. People don’t talk the way Will did. I’m not convinced they ever did, but that was a long time ago, and in England to boot, so who knows? (England is well known for doing strange things to the English language, as well as breakfast.) Of course, one need not go back as far as Shakespeare to encounter befuddling language in literature. Defoe, Hawthorne, Dickens, and Melville can all be tough sledding (or Nantucket sleigh riding, in Melville’s case).
Which quite logically brings us around to “hark.” (And it’s about time, too. Even I was wondering if I’d ever get around to it.) Harks used to be thrown around like rice at a twentieth century wedding. You could hardly sauntereth down ye olde street without being harked at left and right, and sometimes from behind. People were wistfully harkening back to something all the time in those days. I suspect dogs of old harked instead of barked. Cats, on the other hand, were apathetic about it. As far as I know, they still haven’t weighed in on the subject.
Like many good little words, though, “hark” began to wheeze and gasp like a poorly-trained marathon runner, and eventually staggered around a bit before collapsing by the wayside. If you look hard, you can still occasionally see it there, particularly near Christmas. That’s when “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” can be heard. In fact, just try to avoid it – it’s impossible. I say if harking was good enough for angels, though, it should be good enough for us, but then most people would not describe today’s world as angelic.
Shakespeare wrote “Hark, Hark! The lark!” and wasn’t stoned for it, but that was when such mutterings were popular. Ogden Nash wrote a bit of a takeoff on Will’s harking lark, but ended it with, “Now we see him stop, take one small hop, and suddenly keel over dead.”
Of course, this was ‘way back in the 20th century, when hark was already on life support, and that was the last straw. People had had enough of all this harking, and weren’t going to take it anymore, particularly if it was killing birds. Mr. Nash drove the stake through hark’s heart, if not the lark’s. Some scholars think it was already dead, and therefore Mr. Nash committed no crime, except possibly abuse of a corpse. However, our modern American philosophy is to blame as many people as possible, particularly if they’re not around to defend themselves, so let’s pile on. I think there’s also a reasonable chance that Ogden Nash may be to blame for the death of the Nash automobile, so let’s pin that on him, too. Which is the greater loss, the hark or the Nash, is left to the reader.
The moral of all this is to be careful in your choice of words. You don’t want to appear outdated, as that is a capital offense in our society. I used the word “cool” a while back (as in, “that car is really cool”) only to discover that cool isn’t cool any more. I was mocked and ridiculed for it, and it wasn’t even on social media.
So, here’s my suggestion: let’s change “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” to “Hey, Listen up! Angels are Singin’n’at.” This has a more contemporary feel to it, as well as a Pittsburgh vibe, which is never a bad thing, except outside of Pittsburgh.