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Hello: Origin of the Word & How It Caught On

Hello is one of the most frequently used words in everyday speech, but it wasn't recorded until around 1883. Its earliest ancestor, hallow, dates back to at least 1340 and was used by Chaucer.  Hallow probably derives from the Old French hallo-er, meaning "to pursue crying or shouting." Hello came into fashion with the invention of the telephone late in the 19th century, replacing the earlier variant hullo.

Alexander Graham Bell first exhibited his telephone at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876 and by the mid-1890s, about 300,000 phones were in use. By World War I, the number reached 10.5 million. Learning to use this new device, Americans wondered what to say to start a telephone conversation. Bell’s choice for an initial greeting was “Ahoy.” Others argued for more formal greetings like “What is wanted?” or “Are you there?”

In 1877, Thomas Edison, the famous inventor who developed the first practical telephone transmitter, solved the problem by introducing “Hello!” as the standard English telephone greeting. The word had been around for a little while; Mark Twain had used it in Tom Sawyer. But why Edison chose to use it is not known. Whatever the derivation, hello had become standard by 1880 when Mark Twain used it in his comic sketch, A Telephonic Conversation.

Reader Comments (6)

I like "what is wanted?" sounds like my grandpa, lol.

"Ahoy" sounds like a fun one to start using again. Can't wait for someone to call me now....

October 19, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTiger

I personally like "Are you there?" the best.

Sooooo many philosophical implications in that question. :-)


October 19, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterShay

ok, I got a few phone calls this afternoon and decided to try all three HELLO'S out.

1st call came from a friend. I said "Ahoy!" and she came back without pausing and said 'CHIPS!' Perfect!

2nd call must have been a telemarketer(unknown caller), I said "what is wanted?"....they hung up. lol.

3rd call was from a doctors office. I said "Are you there?" and she answered, snobbishly, "uh yeah I'm here" Yikes!

4th call came from another friend. I used "Ahoy!' again. My friend said: "well, Ahoy matey!"

So I'm sticking with Ahoy! Maybe not as 'philosophical' as "are you there?" but the most fun to say since I, along with my friends, are idiots, not philosophers. ;-)

October 19, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTiger

Very cool info! I really like the picture of the switchboard operator! Thanks for sharing, Jinxi.

October 19, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLady Rebecca Bates

the Klingon word for Hello is " nuqneH " which literally means, " what do you want?"

October 20, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJeffro

Nice post. I like the post and picture.
One word i could recognize in Hindi "Namstey". Its an indian word. People use this word as "Hello" when they meet first time.

October 21, 2009 | Unregistered Commentercables
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