Robert Krulwich, who writes a “sciencey” blog at NPR, just gave a wonderful run-down of the history of the word hello as used on the telephone. Here’s a taste:
The Oxford English Dictionary says the first published use of “hello” goes back only to 1827. And it wasn’t mainly a greeting back then. Ammon says people in the 1830’s said hello to attract attention (“Hello, what do you think you’re doing?”), or to express surprise (“Hello, what have we here?”). Hello didn’t become “hi” until the telephone arrived.
The dictionary says it was Thomas Edison who put hello into common usage. He urged the people who used his phone to say “hello” when answering. His rival, Alexander Graham Bell, thought the better word was “ahoy.”
“Ahoy,” it turns out, had been around longer — at least 100 years longer — than hello. It too was a greeting, albeit a nautical one, derived from the Dutch “hoi,” meaning “hello.” Bell felt so strongly about “ahoy” he used it for the rest of his life.
And so, by the way, does the entirely fictional “Monty” Burns, evil owner of the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant on The Simpsons. If you watch the program, you may have noticed that Mr. Burns regularly answers his phone “Ahoy-hoy,” a coinage the Urban Dictionary says is properly used “to greet or get the attention of small sloop-rigged coasting ship.” Mr. Burns, apparently, wasn’t told.
Why did hello succeed? Aamon points to the telephone book. The first phone books included authoritative How To sections on their first pages and “hello” was greeting.
In fact, the first phone book ever published, by the District Telephone Company of New Haven, Connecticut, in 1878 (with 50 subscribers listed) told users to begin their conversations with “a firm and cheery ‘hulloa.'” (I’m guessing the extra “a” is silent.)
I think I might start answering the phone with “Ahoy”. Krulwich also talks about what to say when getting off the phone, instead of “Good-bye”. I’ve noticed that I use “Thanks” as a signoff, both on the phone and in email. Do you have a great greeting or signoff? What would you do if someone answered the phone with “Ahoy”?