It was apparently World Hello Day last week, a date marked over on the HH Twitter feed with the fact that Alexander Graham Bell’s preferred method for answering the telephone was the word ahoy. Alas it was not to be, and Thomas Edison’s suggestion, hello, eventually became the standard.
Of the two, ahoy is the older word: there is a written record of hoy, albeit without its intensifying a–, dating from the early fourteenth century. But as an example of what the Oxford English Dictionary labels a “natural exclamation” we can presume that it has likely been in use a lot longer than that.
Recorded no earlier than the 1820s, by comparison hello is a more recent development. There’s a longstanding myth that claims Edison himself invented the word hello, but it’s misguided: it and its earlier variations—like hallo, hollo, hullo and halloa—can all probably be traced back to a Tudor period exclamation, holla!, that essentially meant “stop!” or “desist!”. Dating from the sixteenth century, holla was adopted into English from French and might have began life as a hunting cry.
Given that heritage, it might come as little surprise to find that when hello first began to be used regularly in English in the early nineteenth century, it was used not as a greeting at all. Instead, like ahoy, it was a call to attention or an expression of surprise.
But why would either Edison or Bell want to champion a word that essentially meant “look over here!” or “goodness me!” for answering their telephone?
Well. Not only was the telephone a spectacularly novel device—and communication with someone unseen would doubtless have felt extraordinarily awkward—but early prototypes of telecommunications systems were designed to be permanently connected. So there would be no “ringing” or “dialling” someone up: the two locations (telephones were envisaged as little more than tools of business in their early years) would be permanently linked by an open telephone line, so using an expression that could both register surprise and draw attention to the fact that someone was looking to communicate would have seemed a natural choice.
As Edison himself wrote in 1877 while working on a telephone system for Western Union:
I don’t think we shall need a call bell [on the line] as Hello! can be heard 10 to 20 feet away.
One question remains, however. Edison and Bell were famously bitter rivals—so how did Edison win this particular battle?
As telephone technology picked up pace in the late 1870s, Edison was hired by telegraph and money transfer company Western Union to produce a commercial telephone unit that could compete with Bell’s system, the patent for which Bell had received in February 1876. Within just two years of that date, Western Union opened the first public telephone exchange was in New Haven, Connecticut, in January 1877.
According to the official WU manual, telephone operators—working with Edison’s technology and under his directives—were permitted to use one of two greetings when answering the telephone: one was a somewhat stuffy “What is wanted?”, while the other was “hello?”. Within just a couple of years, hello had established itself as the most popular of the two and quickly became a breezy and informal means of answering a call. It has remained in use ever since.