Hello! Hi! Hey!
I was wondering about the origin of these salutations and it took me on an interesting etymological journey which I thought I’d share with you.
I remembered reading a long time ago that the word “hello” arrived in the lexicon at the same time as the telephone was invented. It turns out that this is not true, but close.
It seems that “hello” is an Americanisation of the British English “hallo” which probably originates in old German “halâ, holâ, halôn, holôn” which meant “to fetch”. This term was known to be used to ‘hail’ a ferryman and indicated that you wanted to be collected and taken somewhere by boat. Other sources suggest it originates in the Romance “hola!” meaning “stop!” (also a greeting in Spanish) or perhaps from the French “o la!” meaning “whoa!”. It has also been suggested that it has Classical Greek origins as Homer uses the term “ούλε” meaning “health” and the origin of the German “heil” (a cognate of English “hale”).
So, it seems that a singular origin for the word “hello” is uncertain but what is certain is that it is older that the telephone. So what is the origin of the telephone story? Well, it turns out that “hello” gained popularity in the 1880s specifically as a telephone greeting and nobody is sure why. Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, preferred the nautical term “ahoy!” but said “hello” the first time the telephone worked because he was so surprised at his success (he would continue to use “ahoy” for the remainder of his life).
“Hi” and “Hey”
This is where things get really interesting.
It is widely accepted that these words have the same origin in the Germanic “hei” or “hej”. But it appears the term is a ubiquitous and innate human greeting and we find it everywhere. For example in Mandarin Chinese “哎” [āi] or in Greek “εἴα” [eía] and Latin “eia”. It can also be found in Unami (a Native American language) “hè” and in Burmese “ဟေး” [he:]. It’s a natural human expression much like a cat’s “miaow”. Wow!
So, next time you greet someone say “Hi!” or “Hey!” and, maybe, when you use the telephone use “Ahoy!” just like Mr Bell would have liked.