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Hello, Is It You I'm Looking For?

Updated on December 15, 2015

By Steve G. Mileham

Hello ...

… which is entirely appropriate, as this is precisely what we'll be talking about today: hello.

Here's an amazing fact, right out of the gate. For a word most of us would claim to use at least a few times daily, 'hello' does not appear in any of the top 1000 Most Commonly Used English Words lists, nor do its popular variants: hi, hey and hiya. How can this possibly be so? I honestly haven't a clue. I discovered this fact in the midst of my research and am probably as flabbergasted as you.

Anyway, hello, and welcome to a potted history of a word I thought was way more common than it actually is.

Hello is a changeable beast. Over time the word has been spelt using all five vowels: hallo, halloo, hollo, hullo and even hillo. In England, hollo or halloo were often shouted during a hunt when the quarry was spotted, as in, 'Halloo me like a hare.' (William Shakespeare, Coriolanus, I.viii.7). Similarly, an earlier French version gives us holà, roughly, “Whoa there!” This definition accords with Old High German, whose hollo was used 'to fetch' or to alert somebody's attention.

'Hallo' was used in a 1797 letter from Dutchman Willem Bilderdijk to his sister, although not as a greeting, but to register astonishment at something he considered fanciful. Thomas Edison is credited with the word's first use over a telephone, when he similarly exclaimed “Hullo??” in surprise after mishearing his caller.

As telephone use proliferated, so too did hello as a greeting. This is evidenced by the fact that by 1889, U.S. telephone exchange operators had become known as 'hello girls.' Hello's current meaning and form, as spelt with an 'e', thus dates from roughly this time. (Interestingly, Alexander Graham Bell had favoured 'ahoy' as his telephone greeting. It didn't catch on).

From these examples we see that hello is a far more versatile word than at first realised, used variously to gain attention, to acknowledge something's appearance, to register surprise and as a greeting.

But can we go back even earlier to the very beginnings of this chameleon-like word? Bill Bryson, in his fabulous book The Mother Tongue, attempts to pin down hello's definitive origins, and in so doing reveals even more flavours. He asserts it is a contraction of the Old English phrase 'Whole be thou,' meaning, 'good health' or 'be fulfilled spiritually.' This is validated nicely by the even older related word 'haelen' meaning 'to heal, cure, save, greet or salute,' and is likely associated with the Germain 'heil,' which translates to 'to be complete, healthy.'

You never knew that such an unassuming word packed such a depth of history, did you?

So, how do other cultures, past and present, greet each other, and what do their salutations mean? Zulus say, “Sawubona,” - 'We see you.' According to Zulu community leader Orland Bishop, the word is an invitation to truly witness another presence, and this is a state of mind he says is essential to human freedom.

The ancient Incans used to say, “Ama sua, ama llulla, ama qhella,” which equated to 'Don't steal, don't lie, don't be lazy.' This exhortation to be morally upstanding was a cornerstone of their culture.

The Apaches of Northwest Mexico were probably amongst the most polite, with, “Yaa ta sai,” - you are welcome here. Unless you were trying to take their land, I imagine.

Conversely, Klingons greet you with, “Nuqneh,” which, quite predictably considering their gruff demeanour, means, 'What do you want?'

Personally, I want to know why 'hello' couldn't even crack the top 1000? Yes 'hello,' it's YOU I'm looking for. I suspect Lionel Ritchie once encountered this same mystery.


Main source: Collins English Dictionary. Digital Edition 2012

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