I don’t know why you say “hello”

One of our most common words is the greeting, “hello.” Do you know where that word came from? Did you know that it was once considered on the vulgar side, until it became redeemed by the telephone, which was once on its way to adopting “ahoy” instead. Thanks to Joe Carter for alerting me to this discussion by Nate Barksdale:

The history of hello is long and mired in many vowels. Though it didn't show up in its current form till the mid-19th century, its forbears are many and obvious: hallo, halloo, hillo, holla (a Shakespearean favourite recently returned to slang prominence), hollo, holloa—all generally being a combination get-attention-and-greet, useful for hailing passing boats and that sort of thing.

Drifting beyond the bounds of English, hello's roots diverge: is it from the Old High German ferry-call halâ, an emphatic imperative of "to fetch," from the antiquated French stop-shout holà, roughly "whoa there!" or maybe, as Wikipedia tenderly suggests, from the Old English hœlan (heal, cure, save; greet, salute; gehœl! Hosanna!)?

Tempting though it is to hallow hello (as Kleberg County, Texas apparently did in 1997, proclaiming "heavenO" the constituency's official greeting), its current ubiquity is tied to the telephone and the specific social and technological situations that the new device brought about. Initiating a conversation on the telephone involved two difficulties: first, the person might or might not even be there; and second, the caller had no way of knowing who they were talking to, and thus how they should be appropriately addressed.

For the technical problem, there were several early contenders. The British favoured "Are you there?" as a proper way of answering the phone, and in the days of newfangled and spotty phone technology, it was probably a useful one, saving the user the embarrassment of accidentally offering a personal greeting to the void. Once connection became commonplace, one assumes "Are you there?" must have lost its edge as the implications of its question drifted from the technical to the existential.

Alexander Graham Bell, the telephone's inventor, unsuccessfully promoted an alternative that outdid even hello for nautical implications, answering his phone calls with a hearty AHOY! (This tidbit opens up in me a great deep pool of longing for a pop-cultural world that might have been: Ahoy Kitty pencil cases, Jim Morrison crooning "Ahoy, I love you, won't you tell me your name," Renée Zellweger shutting up Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire with a tearful "You had me at ahoy!") But it was Thomas Edison who won the day (or at least claimed the day in hindsight), suggesting the old ferry-hail-whoa-there as being most suitable, writing to a business partner, "I do not think we shall need a call bell as Hello! can be heard 10 to 20 feet away."

Though it passed the technological test, Edison's ringtone was some decades in overcoming its social stigma as a low and crass word whose audibility at 20 feet was not entirely advantageous. In 1916, the business-minded Rotarian magazine lamented: "You would not think of greeting a customer at the front door, particularly one whom you had never seen before, by saying 'Hello.' What is good usage in face to face conversation is good usage in telephone conversations."

But it turned out to be the other way around. Hello streamed into the gap created by an unprecedented social scenario, gaining popularity and, little by little, respectability.

Read the rest of the discussion.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • EricM

    Interesting trivia tid bit – in Czech, the greeting is pronounced Ahoy (I’m not sure of the Czech spelling).

  • EricM

    Interesting trivia tid bit – in Czech, the greeting is pronounced Ahoy (I’m not sure of the Czech spelling).

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    As a confirmed eccentric, I’m strongly tempted to start answering the phone with “Ahoy!” I do love sea stories.

    But I suppose I won’t. People tend not to appreciate my colorfulness as much as I hope they will.

    I’ve always been fond of the British habit of saying, “Hello!” when they encounter something interesting or unexpected, though. I have solidly adopted that affectation, to the consternation of friends and family.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    As a confirmed eccentric, I’m strongly tempted to start answering the phone with “Ahoy!” I do love sea stories.

    But I suppose I won’t. People tend not to appreciate my colorfulness as much as I hope they will.

    I’ve always been fond of the British habit of saying, “Hello!” when they encounter something interesting or unexpected, though. I have solidly adopted that affectation, to the consternation of friends and family.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    Funny how the vulgar becomes acceptable.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    Funny how the vulgar becomes acceptable.

  • Bill

    I know a guy who answers his home phone the way he used to answer his business phone: “Good morning, J-n D–e here.” I like that: you know right away who answered the phone. Where I live Latino families tend to answer “Bueno,” which literally means “good,” short for Buenos Dias, or Good Day. I answer “Bueno” on occasion just to hear the confused reaction from the caller.

    But my favorite is to say “Friday. Homicide.” You watch enough Dragnet and you get used to it. Answering the phone shouldn’t be a chore. So what if people don’t appreciate your colorfulness. Eh? Lars?

  • Bill

    I know a guy who answers his home phone the way he used to answer his business phone: “Good morning, J-n D–e here.” I like that: you know right away who answered the phone. Where I live Latino families tend to answer “Bueno,” which literally means “good,” short for Buenos Dias, or Good Day. I answer “Bueno” on occasion just to hear the confused reaction from the caller.

    But my favorite is to say “Friday. Homicide.” You watch enough Dragnet and you get used to it. Answering the phone shouldn’t be a chore. So what if people don’t appreciate your colorfulness. Eh? Lars?

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    First of all, since no one else has mentioned it, props and curses for the Beatles reference (curses because it’s stuck in my head now, and I’m already tired of the ascending major scales).

    Second, it’s interesting how “hello” came to solve the problem of whether to use the formal or informal, in languages where that’s an issue, when greeting an unknown caller.

    Thirdly, the Kleberg County Commissioners are goofs that could stand to brush up on etymology.

    Fourthly, Eric (@1), it’s spelled “ahoj”.

    Fifthly, this only goes to show how well researched Simpsons are (or at least used to be), since Mr. Burns answered his telephone “Ahoy-hoy!” — a likely reference to A. G. Bell’s preferred greeting.

    Sixthly, Lars (@2), I sincerely hope you use the proper intonation when uttering the “hello” of surprise, dropping several whole notes between “hel” and “lo”, and then dragging out the final “o” with a slowly rising pitch.

    Finally, let this be yet another lesson to the prescriptivists, who will almost assuredly ignore it as they have every other lesson from the way language actually works.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    First of all, since no one else has mentioned it, props and curses for the Beatles reference (curses because it’s stuck in my head now, and I’m already tired of the ascending major scales).

    Second, it’s interesting how “hello” came to solve the problem of whether to use the formal or informal, in languages where that’s an issue, when greeting an unknown caller.

    Thirdly, the Kleberg County Commissioners are goofs that could stand to brush up on etymology.

    Fourthly, Eric (@1), it’s spelled “ahoj”.

    Fifthly, this only goes to show how well researched Simpsons are (or at least used to be), since Mr. Burns answered his telephone “Ahoy-hoy!” — a likely reference to A. G. Bell’s preferred greeting.

    Sixthly, Lars (@2), I sincerely hope you use the proper intonation when uttering the “hello” of surprise, dropping several whole notes between “hel” and “lo”, and then dragging out the final “o” with a slowly rising pitch.

    Finally, let this be yet another lesson to the prescriptivists, who will almost assuredly ignore it as they have every other lesson from the way language actually works.

  • Jen Lehmann

    In Hungarian, greetings are the same whether they come at the beginning or the end of the conversation. They’ve adopted the English “Hello” for phone and informal conversations, but use it the same way they use Hungarian greetings. It’s amazing how difficult it is to hang up a phone when the person on the other end is saying, “Hello!” no matter how well you know they mean good-bye. :-)

  • Jen Lehmann

    In Hungarian, greetings are the same whether they come at the beginning or the end of the conversation. They’ve adopted the English “Hello” for phone and informal conversations, but use it the same way they use Hungarian greetings. It’s amazing how difficult it is to hang up a phone when the person on the other end is saying, “Hello!” no matter how well you know they mean good-bye. :-)


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