Telephone history

Sallie Satterthwaite's picture

All right, class. Today we’ll visit a word that was invented for a purpose, a made-up word you probably use daily. It’s an invented word, according to several sources like NPR Radio and Yahoo Asker, because its creator had trouble settling on a word to use when answering the telephone he just invented.

I brought up a couple of searches and have enough bits and pieces to gather into a column. Many of us word mavens get swept into the dictionary when Merriam-Webster or the OED releases a new edition with new words, and often forget to come up for air. Or to make dinner.

Let me prolong this no further. Our Word for the Day is simplicity itself: “Hello.”

Rummaging for another word, I came across a couple of entries that piqued my interest, in particular the fact that this is a relatively recent addition to the official written lexicon. No one seems to be absolutely certain about its source, but there’s one use dating from 1849, several from the 1870s and 1880s.

That’s not old in the life of inventions like the telephone. It was a time in history in which inventions leapt fully formed from eager brains, sometimes in search of bounty.

But now we’ve got the ’phone and we need a proper greeting. Words like “halloo” and “ho!” were commonplace especially on the hunting ground because they carry well. A hearty “halloo!” however, seemed coarse when there might be a genteel lady on the other end.

A Hungarian inventor, Tivadar Puskás, favored “hallom,” “hello” in his language. The contributor of “hello” was actually Alexander Graham Bell who contributed the telephone too. Until I got into this, I didn’t realize that Bell was such a collaborator with Thomas Edison. In a letter from 1877, he appears to have been the first to write “hello” with that spelling.

I found this next factoid rather amazing. You know those pesky sticky-backed “Hello! My Name is…” labels? In 1880, delegates to the National Convention of Telephone Companies were all wearing them to their annual meeting in Niagara Falls, N.Y. – an unofficial endorsement of the word used as the standard telephone greeting to this day.

One Bill Casselman has added some more arguments for “hello.” He said it appears to have been a stab at an imitation by hunters of a hunting dog’s yowl. It is marked “echoic” in many dictionaries, which then add its early forms like “halloo” from the medieval French “halloer, to pursue game with shouts and cries.”

He also offers the Old High German verb “halon, to hail a ferryman by shouting halloo across the water.” Halloo, hullo, and hello are a few of many variants that include the reduplicated hullabaloo. Obviously, English “hail” is a derivative – or vice versa?

Thomas Edison made a lot of improvements to Bell’s telephonic device, but the two men could not agree on how to answer it. According to the American Heritage word book, Edison favored “hello,” and, in fact “hello” prevailed over Bell’s choice: “Ahoy-ahoy.”

Allen Koenigsberg, a professor at Brooklyn College, did an “All Things Considered” interview with Robert Siegal in March, 1999. Koenigsberg was bemused by the fact the choice of “hello” was driven largely by the social mores of the day.

Well-bred ladies in particular are not encouraged to speak to strangers, and a telephone brings strangers right to your front hall. A lady will hardly want to bellow “halloo” or “ahoy-ahoy” into the ear of a stranger, especially since she and the caller probably had not been properly introduced.

“Hello” is a very neutral word and fits in perfectly with English conversation. It works both in telephonic and face-to-face settings.

We, however, seldom use “Hello.” It seems time-wasting to me to make the caller ask if he has reached the Smiths. The reply is, “Yes.” “Is Mrs. Smith there?” “This is Mrs. Smith. Who’s calling please?”

All those words where one would suffice: your name. “Smiths.” The caller knows he or she has reached the right number and can probably deduce that the teen answering the phone was not Mrs. Smith.

When I was young – very young – I was a regular little prude and recognized that the word “hell,” a curse word, according to my Sunday School teacher, was embedded in the word “hello.”

No problem. Change the offending syllable to “heck.” “Hecko!” I greeted family and strangers alike. “Hecko! How are you?”

I was hell to live with.

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