Origins of ‘hello’ debated

Wes Franklin
Neosho Daily News

I recently heard some interesting, if perhaps conflicting, information on the origins of the words “hi” and “hello.” 

According to one version, and I think the better story, if less credible, both words stem from at least the American Puritan days, if not before, when one person greeting another person would say something to the effect of “heaven is HIgh”, and the response would be “yes, but HELL is LOw”. That story doesn’t get much traction in the etymology world, though. 

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “hello” simply came from a similar German word and wasn’t a salutation at all, but more of a word used to get someone’s attention, specifically ferrymen. The dictionary also throws in the mix some old French words that meant expressions of surprise. Between the two came the English word “hello”, and the Oxford dictionary says it didn’t even show up in writing until 1826, and wasn’t typically a greeting. 

Yet another claim, however, is that it is indeed an old English word after all, and did actually start out as the greeting “hale be thou”, meaning a wish for good health and/or fortune. 

After the invention of the telephone, the word “hello” was soon used, per the new formal phone etiquette, as the standard greeting when answering the line, though “ahoy” was also tried for a while. It didn’t take, I guess. I would feel silly saying “ahoy” when answering the phone, but not if I was used to it and it was the normal greeting, I suppose. 

It is usually assumed that the word “hi” was just a shorted version of hello, but there are many other theories about that one too, which I don’t have space to write about here. 

I will mention, however, that the word “goodbye” is believed to be a contraction of the old phrase “God be with you”, and dates back to the 16th century. That one, at least, seems to be mostly agreed upon. 

-Wes Franklin writes a weekly column, That History Guy, for The Neosho Daily News and on occasion for The Aurora Advertiser.