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TWTS: The not-so dulcet tones of harping

While harps make beautiful music, most of us would agree there’s nothing beautiful about someone harping on something.

Our listener Kalen Oswald recently asked, “If the harp is historically famous for its soothing music, going all the way back to the Old Testament, then why do we say someone is ‘harping’ on us when we are being nagged or irritated?”

Like the noun “harp,” the verb “to harp” is quite old, going all the way back to Old English. Back then, it simply meant to play the harp. One harped the harp, so to speak.

By the 1500s, people started using this verb metaphorically. The metaphor comes from the idea of someone harping on one string. In other words, playing the same note repeatedly. That could get annoying fast, right?

From there, “harping” extends to someone who’s dwelling on an issue, a statement or a topic in a way that’s tiresome or monotonous.

Typically, we see the preposition “on” alongside this verb. You might say something like, “My parents are always harping on the importance of a good night’s sleep.”

However, while “on” is most common, “about,” “upon,” and “at” are also in the mix. Sometimes you hear two in the same sentence: “I’m always harping on my kids about getting to bed early.”

By the way, if you’re an actual harpist, we take full responsibility for any puns that come your way as a result of this segment.   

Spock shares your pain, harpists.

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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