Ahoy! How “Hello” became telephone history

Ahoy! How “Hello” became telephone history - Lovefone, London

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.

Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1876, and just a year later, Thomas Edison recorded the first sound ever on his invention of the paper cylinder phonograph, shouting the word “halloo!” As peer rivals in this burgeoning industry (Bell went on to improve on Edison's phonograph), it must have been satisfying for Edison that his word of choice became the commonly used salutation when using Bell's invention. Fun fact: Bell was actually in favor of using the nautical greeting “Ahoy!” as the standard phone greeting. Obviously, that did not catch on, however amusing the thought may be.

As phone technology and phone language has evolved, our uses of them have, too. When the first telephones were produced, many envisioned them for business use only, and while we certainly still use our phones to make money, I wonder what they would think of children using today's phones to play games.

In 1878, the very first phone book was published by District Telephone Company of New Haven, Connecticut. At that time, they had just 50 subscribers. Who among them would've dreamed there would be a time when we'd debate smartphones as a human right! This early ledger not only gave a listing of phone numbers, but also provided a handy how-to section, if one was in doubt as to how to carry on a telephone conversation (a very new concept at the time, actually). In the official instructions, they recommended new users begin their verbal exchange with “a firm and cheery 'hulloa.'”

Many of the early telephones had actual metal bells that would sound when the user had an incoming call. Little did Bell or Edison know that would evolve into the myriad of smartphone alerts we have available today. Furthermore, while today's phones contain mini personal assistants, early phones required actual people simply to operate them. “Hello” had pervaded telephone culture so much that these switchboard operators were called “hello girls.”

But, will the legacy of using “hello” as the most-used greeting continue in (and perhaps after) the cellphone age? In a generation whose most oft-used text greeting is the more casual “hey,” will “hello” be as lost to the archives as “hullo” or “ahoy”? Maybe not. For programmers beginning to learn computer languages, the first thing they use is a simple “Hello, world!” program. It is simply a display device being used to convey the forthright message, “Hello, world!” What I'd like to point out, however, is that the phrase never changes. This has been programming protocol since at least 1972. With the advent of wireless landlines, then cellphones, and then smartphones, many popular slang greetings have come and gone in that time. “Hello” is a classic, if not universal, way in which to greet the world, and I hope it stays.

Author: Rae Avery

March 14, 2016