You hear it all the time, and you use it on the phone. It's so frequent that you don't even notice it anymore. Our ubiquitous greeting "hi" has grown so commonplace that it's practically monotonous. But what if we changed things up? Come up with something that will attract our attention. Something along the lines of "hello"?
Though it seems that we should reserve that one for "International Talk Like a Pirate Day," it was very close to being our favored rendition of "hello," at least if Alexander Graham Bell had his way.
We don't actually know our hello all that well, despite the fact that we use it so often that it seems like we are well-acquainted. Most people are unaware that Thomas Edison promoted its usage on the newly created telephone, or that it has only been used as a greeting since the 1800s. When we look at the history of English, hello is a baby in the woods compared to a good morning or how are you.
A Brief History of Greetings
While the phrase "hey" may not be as old as it once was, it doesn't mean we didn't welcome one other before it became popular. In fact, we can discover a variety of various English greetings going back to Old English, which was over 1,000 years ago.
Linguist Keith Johnson writes in his book The History of Early English that a particularly prevalent kind of greeting in that era was one that enquired about one's health meaning "How to fare you?" or "Be well." We now know that we may blame our Germanic forebears (or moms) for our habitual urge to inquire "How are you?" even when we don't want to hear the response.
It may seem that the term hl is connected to and hence a probable ancestor of our present hello, however, it is not. Instead, it is the progenitor of hail, a common greeting throughout the early modern English era that we now find repulsive owing to its more recent connections. The salutation "heil," which has become synonymous with the Nazi dictatorship, is derived from the 13th-century Scandinavian term heil. In Shakespeare's day, such a hail was often employed as a courteous welcome, i.e. "Hail Ceasar!"
According to historical linguist Joachim Grzega, idioms that made reference to the time of day were also fairly frequent in that period, such as Shakespeare's favorite, "Good morrow," a version of which appeared as early as the 1300s in Chaucer's Miller's Tale. Of course, we still use this form of greeting in phrases like "Good morning" or "Good evening."
In other words, despite the wording may vary, the necessity for welcomes as a social greaser has been with us for a long time.
The Beginnings of "Hello"
So, if health and hail were the cornerstones of our welcomes for millennia, how did we get from how fares thou to hello? Well, we can credit Thomas Edison and the phone book for transforming hello into what it is today. Though Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, Edison improved the transmitter design for Bell's competitor Western Union, giving him a stake in the new world of long-distance communication. And he thought "hi" would be a decent way to start a discussion.
Edison did not coin the phrase; it has been used as a catchphrase (e.g., "Hello! You there") since at least 1827. However, it wasn't until much later—the Oxford English Dictionary offers evidence from an 1856 newspaper story as an example—that it was employed as a real welcome. It wasn't widespread, though, until Edison used it to draw attention to one's wish to build a connection with someone on the other end of the receiver. After all, hearing heavy breathing on the telephone doesn't exactly entice us to talk.
But Hello had Some Stiff Competition
The guy who created the telephone had something to say about it as well. Bell chose the nautical phrase ahoy, which sailors use to welcome each other from afar, to serve a similar function over the phone. He was said to have used the remark till his death.
Though ahoy as a greeting did not take on, there are a few modern-day aficionados of Bell's term—Monty Burns, a character on the TV program The Simpsons, answered the phone with ahoy.
Why did Edison's hello triumph over Bell's ahoy? According to Ammon Shea, the author of The Phone Book, this is because of what was previously lovingly known as the White Pages. Hello, not ahoy, was indicated as the acceptable greeting in the earliest published telephone books' introductory telephone how-tos.
Because the technology was new, people studied the directions, as opposed to today, when we prefer to wing it and hope for the best. Other treasures discovered in the early phone book? Finish the call by speaking into the mouthpiece and saying, "That's all!" That one, I guess, didn't have as much celebrity backing.
So, in the end, we can thank Mr. Edison for more than simply light bulbs—he also contributed to the preservation of ahoy as the exclusive realm of pirates. And for that, my friends, we landlubbers should be quite grateful.