I love the English language. Being an avid reader, as well as a writer, speaker and public-relations professional, I spend much of my day using the good old English language. Sometimes a little too much, my husband claims.
The origin of words and phrases always has interested me. Let us consider the simple “hello.” This is sometimes said to be the most used word in the English language, and we all use this universal greeting many times a day.
How did it come into common use? The story will no doubt surprise you.
The origin of the word is a bit cloudy, but most reference sources, such as www.dictionary.reference.com, trace it back a few hundred years to the Old French “holla.” That generally is a shout used to attract attention, in particular when hailing a ferry boat or calling hunting dogs.
The first use of “hello” in literature was in 1833 in a book by American icon Davy Crockett, but it wasn’t used as a greeting until the late 1800s with the invention of the telephone.
The teelephone’s inventor, Alexander Graham Bell, initially believed the phone would primarily be a business tool and planned for the line between two points to stay permanently open. So how does the party at one end get the attention of the other?
Obviously, they must say something to notify the other side to speak. Early contenders were “Are you there?” and “Are you ready to speak?” But, surprisingly, the one that almost became commonplace was “Ahoy!”
Bell was convinced that the then-100-year-old nautical term “ahoy” — especially when said with much emphasis — made the perfect ice-breaker when using his new invention. He used it for the rest of his life.
So why don’t we use it today? Enter one of Bell’s rivals, the great Thomas Edison, and the city of New Haven, Conn.
Edison, although he did not invent the telephone, was working on improved transmitters and, therefore, deeply involved in the new technology. He dismissed “ahoy”, started using “hello” as a greeting, and subordinates at his laboratories soon grew weary of their hard-of-hearing boss constantly shouting “Hello! Hello! I say hello!” into a variety of developing telephone components.
Ammon Shea, author of “The Phone Book: The Curious History of the Book That Everyone Uses But No One Reads,” said that the first phone book, printed up and distributed by the District Telephone Company of New Haven in 1878 to all 50 telephone users in the city, suggested that this new gadget called the telephone be answered with “a firm and cheery ‘hulloa.’” This would sound vaguely Hawaiian, except the “a” was soon treated as silent.
Finally, insuring the survival and adoption of the new word came during the 1880 National Convention of Telephone Companies annual conference in Niagara Falls. The group’s president said, “The shortest speech that I could make to you … probably would be the one that is on all your badges — ‘Hello’!” The applause was thunderous, and the “Hello!” nametag was also born.
So how did that first phone book suggest that telephone conversations be ended? Not with a “Goodbye,” which derives from “God be with ye” in Old English from the 1500s, but instead with a firm “That is all.”
So, that is all. And God bless America!
Frances grew up in London, England, and moved to Richmond Hill in 2009. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or go to www.lesleyfrancispr.com.