The Short History Of ‘Hello’

Saturday, March 12th, 2011

As a child, I was surprised to learn that ‘hello’ was a fairly new word:

The Oxford English Dictionary says the first published use of “hello” goes back only to 1827. And it wasn’t mainly a greeting back then. Ammon says people in the 1830′s said hello to attract attention (“Hello, what do you think you’re doing?”), or to express surprise (“Hello, what have we here?”). Hello didn’t become “hi” until the telephone arrived.

The dictionary says it was Thomas Edison who put hello into common usage. He urged the people who used his phone to say “hello” when answering. His rival, Alexander Graham Bell, thought the better word was “ahoy.”

“Ahoy,” it turns out, had been around longer — at least 100 years longer — than hello. It too was a greeting, albeit a nautical one, derived from the Dutch “hoi,” meaning “hello.” Bell felt so strongly about “ahoy” he used it for the rest of his life.

And so, by the way, does the entirely fictional “Monty” Burns, evil owner of the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant on The Simpsons.

I remember reading the Winnie the Pooh stories as a child, and Pooh would call out “Halloo!”, which struck me as wrong — not quite “hello,” and used in place of “hey!”

The first phone books included authoritative How To sections on their first pages and “hello” was frequently the officially sanctioned greeting.

In fact, the first phone book ever published, by the District Telephone Company of New Haven, Connecticut, in 1878 (with 50 subscribers listed) told users to begin their conversations with “a firm and cheery ‘hulloa.’”

The phonebook’s recommended Way To End A Phone Conversation — “that is all” — did not take off:

This strikes me as an eminently more honest and forthright way to end a phone call than “good-bye.” “Good-bye,” “bye-bye,” and all the other variants are ultimately contractions of the phrase “God Be with you” (or “with ye”). I don’t know about you, but I don’t really mean to say that when I end a conversation. I suppose I could say “ciao” — which does have a certain etymological background of coming from the Italian schiavo, which means “I am your slave,” and I don’t much want to say that either…


  1. The last quote reminds me of the curious phenomenon of E-Prime.

  2. Isegoria says:

    I’ve mentioned the language of clear thinking before, by the way.

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