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Hello… Ahoy… That Is All

March 27, 2011

Hello is the most common form of greeting used by humans all over the world. The phone rings, we grab the phone receiver and the first word we speak is “Hello”. We meet new people and the introduction starts with hello in most of the countries. So how did the word become a universal form of greeting , especially while conversing on the phone. When was it first introduced, who introduced it, what alternative word we might be using instead if somehow Hello didn’t become popular?

According to Merriam Webster, the word Hello was first used in 1877, smilarly online Oxford dictionary dates origin of Hello to be late 19th century. Wikipedia states that the first written use of the word was in 1833 and by 1860 it was frequently used in literature. But during this time, it was not used as a form of greeting rather was used to express surprise (hello, what’s all this then?) or to bring attention (‘Hello below !’ he cried). Hello is considered to be a variant of earlier words Hallo/Hollo/Holla. Besides these variants, Hello also existed as Hullo and Hillo as variants , though rarely used. In short, the word Hello has been spoken or used using all of the five vowels (Hallo, Hello, Hillo, Hollo, Hullo).

But the word Hello didn’t become a form of greeting until the advent of telephone. Thomas Edison has been credited for using and promoting the word Hello as a form of telephone greeting in 1877. Alexander bell, inventor of the telephone, wanted the word Ahoy (used in ships) to be used as the form of telephone greeting. Infact, he used the word Ahoy as form of telephone greeting for the rest of his life. The first telephone book published in Nov 1878 in Connecticut provided Telephone for Dummies kind of description to help it’s 391 subscribers in operating the machine. Guidelines suggested using the word “Hulloa” to start the conversation on phone and “That is all” to end the conversation. So, probably Edison’s promotion and the guidelines provided by the first telephone book pushed the word Hello. If that wouldn’t have happened we might be saying Ahoy while answering the phone (just like Mr Burns from The Simpsons). While Hello became popular, Ahoy was lost into oblivion. But unlike the word hello’s instant rise to popularity, same was not the case for the phrase “That is all” which was replaced by good-bye or bye which is considered to be variant or short version for “God Be with You” or “with ye”. In order to understand the usage of the words Hello and Ahoy from 1820 till 2000, I used Google ngram and generated following plot  (Y axis shows the % of books, in English, sampled by google since 1820 till 2000 which contain the words Hello or Ahoy). It can be clearly seen that the usage of word Hello soared after 1880 while Ahoy could never get any traction.


Top Image credit: Flickr user fenris117 | Used under creative commons license

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