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.

« Hello »

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.









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