Friday, March 13, 2020

The origin of 'hello'

The greetings popular in the 1800s were based on knowing who you were addressing and when you were addressing them: “Good morning, children.” “Good afternoon, Doctor.”

But when you pick up a ringing telephone, you have no idea who’s calling (during the many decades before caller ID), and you can’t even be sure whether you share a time of day with them.

The teleconnected world desperately needed a neutral option.

The two most prominent solutions were “Hello,” championed by Thomas Edison, and “Ahoy,” championed by Alexander Graham Bell.

At the time, both had a similar meaning: they were used to attract attention rather than as a greeting (“hello” has the same origins as “holler”).

Why would you need to attract attention? Some early phones were set up as a line that was just open the whole time, with no bell to ring when someone was calling, so “hello” was like calling out to someone in the room next door.

Even though we did end up with call bells, early phone books provided model dialogues to new phone customers unsure about proper phone etiquette. One early manual suggested beginning with “a firm and cheery ‘hulloa’” or “What is wanted?” and closing with “That is all.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, “What is wanted?” and “That is all” didn’t catch on, but “hello” did, and quickly spread beyond the phone as an all-purpose greeting.

Vestiges of hello’s attention-getting function can still be heard anytime you experience a faulty connection, however; you can say “Hello?” mid-conversation to test the signal, but “Hi?” somehow doesn’t sound right there.

(“Goodbye,” on the other hand, has been around since at least the sixteenth century, but perhaps innovation was less necessary in closing a phone call, since you already knew who you were talking with.)
Source: Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language by Gretchen McCulloch

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