Continuing yesterday’s musings about the telephone, I have a question: what do you say when you answer the phone, and don’t know who’s calling? More than likely you say hello (apart from people who answer the phone at work and have a set greeting). It’s difficult to imagine anything else, but before the invention of the telephone, hello probably didn’t seem like the obvious choice to everyone.
In fact, Alexander Graham Bell preferred another greeting: ahoy-hoy. Yes, Mr. Burn’s standard phone greeting has a basis in reality. He simply adapted the existing nautical term ahoy, itself coming from the Dutch hoi, meaning hi. Clearly it didn’t take off though, and it seems that Bell’s rival in all things communication, Thomas Edison, was responsible for introducing hello as the standard phone greeting. Edison actually envisioned the telephone being used purely as a device for business, with lines continuously open between business partners in different locations. The only problem with such a set up was how to know when the other person wanted to speak, or how to get their attention when you wanted to speak to them. I suppose you could call them first to arrange… oh, yeah. Many people realised this problem quite quickly, and apparently suggested phrases such as Are you there?, Are you ready to talk?, or What is wanted?
Edison decided that all this was far too cumbersome, and suggested a simple hello, which quickly became the standard greeting. This was also almost a neologism, as the word was generally spelt hallo or hullo beforehand. No doubt Edison’s choice of hello and its propagation via the phone helped to cement the now-standard spelling and pronunciation.
Not only that, but it also changed how we use the word hello. In the 19th century, one was not expected to speak to someone unless they had been introduced by another person, and certainly not say hello (hence why Stanley said Dr. Livingstone, I presume). But the telephone helped to break down this etiquette, and hello therefore came to more socially acceptable to use when meeting someone for the first time, even without having been introduced. So even if we don’t actually say hello very often, apart from when we’re on the phone, it looks like we should be grateful to Thomas Edison for making it easier to say Hi, Hey, How are you?, What’s up? or whatever you’re having.
More on this here: http://www.nytimes.com/1992/03/05/garden/great-hello-mystery-is-solved.html