Do you ever answer the telephone at your house? When you do, what do you say? Perhaps you start with a hearty “Greetings and salutations!” Or maybe you pretend to be a cowboy and greet your caller with a friendly “Howdy!”
Most likely, though, you use that common greeting that most people use: a simple “Hello.” After all, hello is one of the most popular ways to greet people, whether it’s on the phone or when meeting a friend on the street.
As common as it is today, you would probably think that we’ve been using hello as long as the English language has been around. Believe it or not, hello has only been around since the late 1820s.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first published use of hello was in 1827. However, back then, it wasn’t used mainly as a greeting.
Instead, hello was used either to get someone’s attention (“Hello, what’s going on here?”) or to show surprise (“Hello, what happened here?”). This early usage may stem from the fact that hello probably developed from words in Old High German (hallo and hollo, meaning “to fetch” and shouted during a hunt when prey was spotted) and French (holla or hola, meaning “whoa there!”).
The exact origins of hello are not clear, though. There are a few other ideas about where hello might have come from. Some believe hello came from hullo, which was a British word used to draw attention, express surprise or greet another.
Author Bill Bryon believes that hello came from the Old English phrase hál béo þu, which meant "whole be thou." This phrase was used to wish someone good health.
Hello wasn’t used as a greeting until many years later when the telephone was invented. Inventor Thomas Edison is given credit for suggesting the use of hello as a standard greeting when answering a telephone.
Edison’s competitor, Alexander Graham Bell, had his own idea for a proper telephone greeting. Instead of hello, he preferred the word “ahoy.” While ahoy may sound funny to us today, the word actually had been used as a greeting for a long time among sailors.
Can you imagine answering your telephone today with a loud “ahoy!”? Kind of makes you feel like a pirate, doesn’t it? Alexander Graham Bell liked the word so much that he continued to answer the telephone that way his whole life.
Hello eventually won the battle, though. Historians credit hello’s victory to the first telephone books. Since people were unfamiliar with these new devices, telephone books contained detailed instructions regarding proper telephone use. Which greeting did they recommend? You guessed it: hello.