If you can get through a day without ever saying Hello, Goodbye or the variations Hi, G’bye, Bye, Bye-bye, etc., you might be a hermit. Where do these words come from? Did someone once decree that they were to be the official American formula words for our greeting and leave-taking? Is there good in “goodbye”? Is there hell in “hello”? No, no, and no to those last three questions, but what a great idea for a country-western song! “Since you left meeee, I could jess die—the good was in hello, and the hell is in goodbye.” Ah, only the first paragraph and already I’ve digressed…
Let’s start with goodbye because it’s simpler and, well, because Paul McCartney did. The original phrase was God be with ye, an ancient way of wishing one well as you took your leave. Folks in the 15th century said every syllable of that sweet expression, but by the later 16th century it had contracted to “Godbwye” (I’ve no idea how that jumble was pronounced.) With everyone already saying “Good day” and “Good evening”, it was inevitable that the phrase would shortly become completely secularized to “Good-bye”. Losing God to “Goodbye” did not sit well with many people who viewed it as a trendy and degenerate utterance popular only among certain slices of society. But as is our human bent, one year’s scandal becomes another year’s status quo, and we’ve been saying “Goodbye” ever since.
I am struck by the similarity of “God be with ye” to the archaic, but still widely known, Spanish parting phrase Vaya con Dios (Go with God). God has also survived in the standard Spanish goodbye, adiós, commending one to God for safekeeping. I suppose this is why “Adiós” is sometimes reserved for more permanent or meaningful partings, while “Hasta luego” works for Bye, see you later. “Hasta la vista” is less common in Spanish speech, but as beloved in America as Cinco de mayo and chimichangas thanks to Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). Ahhnold made $15 million for this movie role in which his entire dialogue consisted of 700 words. Let’s see…that comes out to $21,429 per word; $85,714 just for saying “Hasta la vista, baby.” One stunning linguistic feat!
In parts of South America, it’s common to say ciao as a goodbye, but there it’s spelled chau/chao. Ciao came into Venetian via medieval Latin as s-ciàvo/schiavo, “I am your slave”, a rather weighty commitment to suggest when all you really mean is hasta la bye-bye.
Hello is a somewhat newer word than goodbye, but of course its roots go way back. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it first appeared in print in 1827 but its usage then was not as a greeting, rather as a way of getting someone’s attention (Hello, look what you just did!), or showing surprise (Hello, your dog can shoplift??) In its many variations throughout time and place (beginning around 1400 in Old High German and also in Old French), it was a shout to attract attention, especially to hail a ferryboat: halloo, hallo, halloa, hillo, holla, holler, hollo, hollow, hullo, holà, etc. Yes, the Spanish word for hello, hola, comes from this noble lineage as well.
Let us now examine the history of how “Hello” became our formula for answering the phone, for these things rarely just happen by accident. Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Alva Edison were both born in 1847 and leap-frogged each other through the US Patent Office with their world-changing inventions. Among his many patents, Bell is credited with inventing the metal detector, the hydrofoil boat, the harmonic telegraph and, in 1876, the telephone. Edison invented the phonograph (Imagine what it meant to replay sound!), the motion picture camera (and movement!), the incandescent lightbulb, and the microphone that made Mr. Bell’s telephone into an apparatus that quickly revolutionized business communication. The early telephone was used exclusively in commerce and the line was open on both ends at all times. For the “caller” to be able to get the attention of someone on the other end, several strategies were considered. The president of the Central District and Printing Telegraph Company of Pittsburg was pondering the merits of a call bell, but Thomas Edison convinced him that the right word, spoken cheerfully and firmly, could be heard “10 to 20 feet away.” Alexander Graham Bell was adamant that word should be “Ahoy!” and stubbornly used it the rest of his life. (“Ahoy” is used to answer the phone in parts of Eastern Europe, spelled “Ahoj”) Other early contenders were “What is wanted?”, “Are you there?”, and “Are you ready to talk?” Thomas Edison’s perfect word won out. The first telephone books recommended this word in their instructions to users. “Hello” became the official way to start a telephone conversation and soon became the most popular way to greet people as well, altering forever the proscriptive 19th century etiquette of not speaking unless you had first been introduced. “Hello” or a variation close in sound (as “Aló”) is used to answer the phone in nearly 40 languages as diverse as Arabic, Cantonese, Danish, French, German, Hungarian, Hebrew, Hindi, Japanese, Persian, Polish, Russian, Thai, and Vietnamese.
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “The only thing constant in life is change”, and now we have the game-changer of caller ID. While we’re not saying “goodbye” to the telephone greeting “Hello”, for many of us it’s become rare to answer the phone if we don’t know who is calling. When I do so, I tend to say a rather questioning, suspicious, and totally unsatisfying “hello?” So, in honor of the amazingly inventive duo, Bell and Edison, who pioneered the electronic revolution that has progressed beyond anything anyone in adulthood could ever have imagined, I hereby resolve to make all my future hellos cheerful and firm, and perhaps even throw in an occasional “Ahoy” for colorful good measure.
From Wordstruck! The Fun and Fascination of Language