Simple little word, hello, isn’t it? We probably say it several times a day; we use it to answer the phone, to greet customers or clients at work maybe, as a greeting in slightly formal circumstances where ‘Hi’, ‘how do’ or other variants aren’t right, all sorts of ways. Try counting over a couple of days and see what the tally is.
So, Walter Raleigh to Queen Elizabeth I – ‘Hello, your majesty’
Romeo to Juliet ‘Hello, my darling’
The Wife of Bath to The Pardoner ‘Hello Pardoner [or maybe Pardy, they might have been on very friendly terms for all we know!]’
They don’t quite ring true, do they? The word hello is, actually, not that old at all. The OED records its first use as a greeting in 1853; not very long ago, is it? It had been recorded being used to attract attention or express surprise as far back as 1826, but still, where and how did it suddenly become the default greeting for the English speaking world?
Raleigh would probably have said ‘Good Morrow’ to Bessy 1; Romeo might have said ‘How farest thou?’ to his Julie and Bathy could have greeted Pardy along the lines of ‘Ey, maister, welcome be ye’*.
The etymology of Hello is not totally clear – and why it suddenly grew in popularity is also open to discussion. It can, with varying degrees of frequency, be spelt hallo, hullo, hillo and even hollo apparently. The tale goes that Thomas Edison decided the word was clear enough to be heard from 20 feet away and, therefore, would make a perfect opening greeting for the new-fangled telephone. Alexander Graham Bell, meanwhile, was insisting the word Ahoy was the correct way to open a telephone conversation. Thankfully, despite his inventing the phone, his idea of how to use it did not catch on. For more about this, see, among others, http://www.nytimes.com/1992/03/05/garden/great-hello-mystery-is-solved.html
So, where did it come from? Bill Bryson, in his book Mother Tongue,** informs us that it is a derivative/contraction of the Old English hal beo thu [hale be thou] – in a similar way to modern goodbye being a form of God be with ye. The OED, however, states that it originated in old High German halâ, holâ – being used to attract attention, especially of ferrymen.
“Death as a ferrryman”, a satirical drawing from Punch, 1858
Hmmmm, if this is what a shout of ‘Hello’ could bring, maybe ‘Ey maister’, or even Ahoy could be safer words to use after all?