Ahoy! How "Hello" Became Telephone History

By Rae Avery

Your phone rings and it's an unknown number. How do you answer? Simple. You merely pick it up (or tap the 'answer' button, to be more precise), and say “Hello.” Where, and when, did the word “hello” come from though? And how did it come to be used as the gold standard in telephone greetings?

The answer may surprise you, as “hello” (or at least using it as a greeting) is about as new as the invention of the telephone itself. In addition, the word “hello” was never intended to mean the “hi” we use it for today at all. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first documented use of “hello” was in 1827, less than 200 years ago. Back then it was used in two ways;with, neither of them a friendly greeting. The first use was as an expression of surprise, as in the phrase, “Hello, what do we have here?!” The second was to get sudden attention, as in “Hello, what do you think you're doing?!” This would be comparable to todays “hey you!”.

You may have noticed characters in classic literature from the 1860's onward, greeting each other with, “hullo!” or “hallo!” and actually, all of the five vowels have been used in the first syllable in various iterations of the word. These expressions, and even the more archaic ones mentioned above, were used to call to people from a distance, so it almost seems a bit prophetic that it became the traditional salutation to use to speak to someone on the phone, from any distance we choose.

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