Hey there, inhabitants of the Internetz! It’s Tuesday here in cloudy Edinburgh, and it’s time for our usual Fun Etymology post.
Did you know that when Alexander Graham Bell popularised the telephone in the late 19th century, the word he proposed should be used when answering was “ahoy”?
Yes, the pirate greeting.
And yes, that would have been waaay more fun than “hello”.
Speaking of “hello”: that’s our word this week!
Believe it or not, this now ubiquitous word became the common greeting in the English language only around 1880, when it won over “ahoy” as the telephone-answering word of choice, and until the 1920s it was widely considered to be (*gasp*) an Americanism.
The word itself is a variant spelling of the then more common “hallo”, itself derived from a previous word “holla”, which can be traced back as far as the 14th century. Before that, its origins are a mystery. The Oxford English Dictionary proposes that its origins lie in the emphatic imperative of the Old High German verb “halôn”, meaning “to fetch”, and that it was originally used for hailing ferrymen.
Before becoming the typical English greeting, it was mainly used as an exclamation of surprise, as in “hello! what’s this?” or “hello! Look what I found!”
We’re still not over the fact that we’re not going around greeting each other like pirates in Erroll Flynn movies, but them’s the breaks, folks.
Remember, if there’s a word that piques your curiosity and you want to know more, tell us in a comment, and we’ll consider exploring its history for you!
‘Til the tide rises again, mateys!