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What is one of the first things you learn in English class…

Hello. How are you?

Have you ever wondered what Hello actually means?

Yes, it’s a salutation. Of course, it’s a greeting.

It is now… but it wasn’t always that way.

In the 1830’s Hello was used to attract attention or to express surprise. Hello and Hi didn’t become a greeting until the telephone arrived. That’s way later….

Thomas Edison put Hello into common usage by urging people who used a telephone to answer it saying “hello” in the same way that we say “pronto” in Italy.

This wasn’t a unanimous decision though. His rival, Alexander Graham Bell, thought it would be better to use “Ahoy”.

Ahoy has been around much longer than Hello (at least 100 years or more). It was a logical choice to him, since it was already in use as a greeting in the nautical world. The word ahoy derives from “hoi” which is a Dutch term used as a greeting.

The root of the word matched it’s purpose.

It seems that Ahoy would have been the better term for English speakers to use since it was already a greeting, yet Hello is the term that succeeded both on the telephone and in person.

How can that be? Well… it has more to do with business than with the actual meaning of the word…

We can thank the first phone books that were printed and the companies that printed them!

All phone books included a How To section when the telephone was still new to users, and on the first page Hello was frequently used as the officially sanctioned greeting.

The absolute first phone book printed was printed in New Haven, Connecticut in 1878 and it told users to begin their conversations with “a firm and cheery ‘hulloa'” .

So back to Hello.

It was never meant to be a greeting!

It was actually only meant to grab the listeners attention.

An older more widely used greeting or salutation was Hail, which dates back to the Middle Ages and was still in use during Shakespeare’s time.

Hail was also used to attract attention or to express surprise. I wonder if through time Hail might have had variations (as with many English words) like hollo, hallo, halloa, and even holler!

The fact remains that hello was used more as an expression of surprise, kind of like: “Well, hello! What do we have here?” and not as a greeting.

It seems that Hello must have just caught on and spread it’s use as a greeting all thanks to the telephone.

So when you say Hello, know that you are really saying Well Hello there!

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