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.


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