Q: We saw Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West and noticed that the Italian libretto makes generous use of “hello,” notably with shouts of “Hello, Minnie!” at the saloon. I don’t see anything about “hello” on your blog. Would you like to correct this oversight?
A: We’ve discussed “goodbye” in several posts (most recently, in 2011), but we haven’t written about “hello.” What better time than now?
Despite its ubiquity today, the use of “hello” as a greeting is relatively new, dating back only to the mid-1800s, at least in writing. However, “hello” was used to attract attention or express surprise as far back as the 1820s, and its ancestors date from the 16th century.
The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary for “hello” used to attract attention is from the Oct. 4, 1826, issue of the Norwich (CT) Courier: “Hello, Jim! I’ll tell you what: I’ve a sharp knife and feel as if I’d like to cut up something or other.”
The first OED citation for the term used to express surprise is from a letter in the Sept. 23, 1827, issue of the U.S. Telegraph, a Washington, DC, daily: “Hello, sez Joe Laughton, wher’s Bil Perry un Olla Parsons?”
And the earliest example in the dictionary for “hello” used as a greeting is from the May 28, 1853, issue of the New York Clipper, an entertainment weekly: “Hello ole feller, how are yer?”
The first Oxford citation for “hello” used in the telephone sense is from an Aug. 15, 1877, letter by Thomas Alva Edison to T. B. A. David, president of the Central District and Printing Telegraph Company in Pittsburgh:
“Friend David, I do not think we shall need a call bell as Hello! can be heard 10 to 20 feet away. What you think? Edison — P.S. first cost of sender & receiver to manufacture is only $7.00.” (We’ve expanded the citation by going to the dictionary’s source, the October 1987 issue of Antique Phonograph Monthly.)
The OED notes that Edison “is popularly credited with instigating the practice of saying hello when answering the telephone” and “for the word’s subsequent popularity as a greeting. His rival, Alexander Graham Bell, preferred ahoy to be used.”
Etymologically, “hello” is the last in a line of similarly spelled words that can be traced back to the 1500s.
The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says “hello” is ultimately derived from “holla” or “hollo” (1588), a shout to attract attention, and perhaps from “holla!” (1523), an exclamation meaning “stop!” or “cease!”
Chambers seems to dismiss suggestions that the usage may have been borrowed from, or influenced by, similar terms to attract attention in Middle French (holà) and German (hallo, holla).
“The more probable explanation,” the dictionary says, “is that hello, hallo, holla and hollo are all natural formations in English and that they are parallel to natural formations in German, French and other, if not all, languages.”
By the time Puccini’s opera about the California Gold Rush had its premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in 1910, with shouts of “Hello, Minnie!” ringing out, the use of “hello” as a greeting was an everyday occurrence.