On saying Hello

Akham Bonbirdhwaja Singh
What is meant by the word “Hello”? When you say hello over the phone do you mean “I am here” or “I heard you” or “you go ahead” or even “who are you?” or something else ? A good friend of mine forwarded a post which said that Hello comes from Margaret Hello, the girlfriend of Alexander Graham Bell. Interesting post and sounds convincing but I knew that it was not to be. I thought of making a small write up on “Hello” and another commonly used word “Goodbye”. Why I want to club these two different words in the same write up readers might have already guessed.
A few years back I made a small write up on French leave, and also another one on the use of the word “Please”; forage outside my forte. It was heartening to get many comments and supplements from friends and readers on these two articles and of course on many other articles published through TSE. Please do not misunderstand me that I forgot my core competence; I always keep in mind that for serious issues core competence is very important.
How many times one says hello in a day ? For every call, the receiver says Hello, in an average 1.5 times per call, the caller says hello once per call. (Hello here is inclusive of the telephonic variant “Hi”). Sometimes, we use it in other conversations and greetings, but rarely, not as frequent as we use it in telephonic conversations. So with so many mobile phones in a household and average five calls a day, it won’t be difficult to guess how many times a day one says hello. In fact, it is a word everyone utters more than any other. It is more than “good morning” or “good evening” even. Many say “Hello” and some say “Hallo”, my first boss (RIP) says “Hullo”, there are a few who says that way. Now, Hello is most commonly used and seems that other two are not correct. So, let’s try to know what these three are and how one is related to the others.
Hello is said to be an alteration of word Hallo or Hollo which came from old high Germanic word halla or hollla. They originated from French ho la (Whoa, there). In addition to Hello, others like Halloo, hallo, hulloa (phonetically hullo with last ‘a’ silent) are also used denoting same meaning. It was to mean a note of exclamation originally, like happiness expressed when one sees somebody just suddenly; “whoa, there!” in French “ho, la!”. Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of telephone used “Ahoy!” like sailors say as telephonic greetings. In fact, this form of greeting “hello” first appeared formally in the beginning of 19th century only, first in 1826 and second in 1833. The term was getting used in writings too in letters and literary works. Thomas Edison wanted it as “hello” more and even wrote so to a telephone company in 1877 and he is said to have put the word in to common usage.  By 1883, the transition to hello has become so complete that the telephone operator girls were known as “Hello Girls”. The hello girls were so important till a few decades back that we had to get connected with the receiver only through them in the Telephone Exchange. “Hello, number please”; then for the seconds required for plugging in the jack to the right number on the switchboard, they would say “Hold the line Please” and once they had done that the line is through. So, they played a great role in popularising this word of greeting. These girls are long gone with the advent of automatic exchanges and more advancement in electronics and IT but their gift remained. And the term has metamorphosed etymologically and come to this stage.
The Anglo Saxon word “eala” and old English verb, “hýlan” are the other likely precursors. “Hýlan” is believed to have derived from Germanic “heil”. The link of the origins to Germanic and to Anglo Saxon to old English cannot be ruled out in etymology of many words and terms. Heil is wholeness and healthy, the meaning we assigned to “hale” in the phrase “hale and hearty”. We have another proposal that hello is from old English version of “hale be thou” meaning “you be well”.
So remember, next time when pick up your mobile, you say hello, you wished a lot to the caller. If the caller is a very close acquaintance, we use some other more intimate words. Sometimes, somebody felt “hello” a bit old fashioned and preferred to say “yes please”. But hello is not too old fashioned and not bad, isn’t it ?
Now time to write postscript. So you have talked over your mobile, you end it by saying “bye” a shortened form of “Goodbye” or “goodbye” itself, your parting word. What is meant by it ? Goodbye is a modification of “God be with ye”. By clipping and making colloquial, it became so. Did we really mean to wish the caller so ? Doubtful in the present day world, where we often get really unwanted and untimely calls. But then, hello and bye have become engraved in our phone etiquettes and we can’t help but say hello to the most unwanted caller too, but bye or goodbye are not generally for unwanted or unknown callers.  It is more for the friends. It has more social uses too. Another parting word of a call is “That’s all” which is a bit curt and unemotional, but once, it was officially sanctioned phrase to conclude a conversation over the phone. Of course, there are techniques to end a conversation without being rude. But, bye is more commonly used, “thank you, goodbye”, it is more intimate and personal, “God be with you”.
In the college convocation we used to sing the hymn, God be with you, the best of the farewell wishes at the top of our voices.
  ”……….Till we meet, till we meet
God be with you till we meet again”

The writer can be reached at [email protected]