A Harrowing Use of “Harry”

By Maeve Maddox

I regret that I did not make a note of where I saw this, but it did make me gasp:

…inspire harrying tales that will either make you gasp for air or make you sit there and shake your head.

Whenever I encounter the alteration of an established expression, I do a Google search to see how prevalent it is.

The good news is that I found only three such uses, but the bad news is that, considering the viral nature of the internet, even three could be the thin edge of the wedge.

Here’s the lengthy harrying tale of one of my final forays with cradle robbers. –A blogger writing about dating

Once Were Warriors-Harrying tale of life in a dysfunctional Maori family –comment on a movie site

Only last week I heard a harrying tale of “clergy abuse” right here in Methodism. –A writer on a religious site

The word these writers were reaching for is harrowing.

Both harrying and harrowing derive from the same Old English word hergian: to make war, to lay waste. There may have been a time when the two spellings were interchangeable, but if so, it hasn’t been the case for several hundred years. I doubt very much that the writers who wrote “harrying” in these examples were doing so in the attempt to restore an ancient spelling.

In modern usage the verb to harry means: harass, goad, torment. For example, a dog might harry a cow by nipping at its heels. A harried person is one troubled by persistent annoyances and interruptions. Harrying denotes being bothered, but the word is much milder than harrowing.

The word harrowing is a much stronger word, but as people have grown urbanized and as most children don’t read widely in the classics, the word has become a dead metaphor.

A harrow is a farm implement with vicious teeth, used to break up plowed ground. A harrowing experience is one that causes great emotional pain.

NOTE: A favorite theme of medieval art and drama is “the Harrowing of Hell,” based on the belief that between the crucifixion and the resurrection, Christ descended into Hell to rescue the righteous who lived before him. Both harry and harrow have been used with the meaning to rob.

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4 Responses to “A Harrowing Use of “Harry””

  • Daran

    the word is much milder than harrowing.

    Not always

  • Daran

    Comment in moderation or spam limbo?

  • Maeve

    Daran,
    Thanks for the excellent reference.

    But as for “the word is much milder than harrowing,” I believe that this is true in modern usage.

  • Brad K.

    I think of harrying as action performed on an object; harrowing as a change imposed on the object.

    I will harrow the garden to knock down the weeds and prepare for planting. We tilled the field with the disc harrow just before the rain – now the drag harrow should smooth the ground enough to proceed with planting.

    This was a harrowing couple of days of field work. (Harrowing to the tractor operator, that is; the field work that was done isn’t specified.)

    My teacher keeps harrying me to finish last week’s assignment.

    I could throw in “I harried to get my taxes done before tomorrow night”, but that would be wrong even if I was mis-spelling hurried, because I haven’t, yet. Hurried, that is.

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