why do we answer the phone with hello

What do you say when you pick up the phone? You say "hello," of course. What do you say when someone introduces a friend, a relative, anybody at all? You say "hello. "
Hello has to have been the standard English language greeting since English people began greeting, no? Well, here's a surprise from Ammon Shea, author of The First Telephone Book : Hello is a new word. The Oxford English Dictionary says the first published use of "hello" goes back only to 1827. And it wasn't mainly a greeting back then. Ammon says people in the 1830's said hello to attract attention ("Hello, what do you think you're doing? "), or to express surprise ("Hello, what have we here? "). Hello didn't become "hi" until the telephone arrived. The dictionary says it was Thomas Edison who put hello into common usage. He urged the people who used his phone to say "hello" when answering. His rival, Alexander Graham Bell, thought the better word was "ahoy. " Ahoy? "Ahoy," it turns out, had been around longer в at least 100 years longer в than hello.


It too was a greeting, albeit a nautical one, derived from the Dutch "hoi," meaning "hello. " Bell felt so strongly about "ahoy" he used it for the rest of his life. And so, by the way, does the entirely fictional "Monty" Burns, evil owner of the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant on The Simpsons. If you watch the program, you may have noticed that Mr. Burns regularly answers his phone a coinage the says is properly used "to greet or get the attention of small sloop-rigged coasting ship. " Mr. Burns, apparently, wasn't told. Why did hello succeed? Aamon points to the telephone book. The first phone books included authoritative How To sections on their first pages and "hello" was frequently the officially sanctioned greeting. In fact, the first phone book ever published, by the District Telephone Company of New Haven, Connecticut, in 1878 (with 50 subscribers listed) told users to begin their conversations with "a firm and cheery 'hulloa. '" (I'm guessing the extra "a" is silent. ) Whatever the reason, hello pushed past ahoy and never looked back.


The same cannot be said of the phonebook's recommended Way To End A Phone Conversation. The phonebook recommended: "That is all. " The more Ammon thought about it, the more he liked "That is all. " Well, this probably wasn't fair or even nice, but I decided to call Ammon Shea to see if he practices what he preaches. He answered his phone with a very standard "hello" and then, after I'd gotten permission to quote from his book, when it was time to end our conversation, I gave him no hint, no encouragement, I just waited to see how it would go. hoping to hear him do his "That is all. " But no. He said, "bye. " Ammon Shea's new book (Perigee/Penguin 2010) is called The Phone Book: The Curious History of the Book That Everybody Uses But No One Reads.


Our illustrations come from the magical pen of Adam Cole, intern with NPR's Science Desk, and should anyone wish to place a call to "Monty" Burns in Springfield, be prepared. This is how he will answer the phone. ItБs pure instinct. When our phones ringБafter checking caller ID, of courseБwe pick up and say, БHello? Б But if Alexander Graham Bell had his way, we would be saying БAhoy. Б Tatiana Ayazo/Rd. com The word БahoyБ has been around for at least 100 years longer than Бhello. Б It came from the Dutch word Бhoi,Б also a greeting. According to, Bell was so certain it would catch on as the perfect phone conversation starter that he used it for the rest of his life. Tatiana Ayazo/Rd. com Luckily, we donБt have to every time we pick up the phone. You can thank Thomas Edison for that. He was the one who proposed БhelloБ as the proper greeting, to the chagrin of his rival Bell. At the time, telephones were thought of like modern walkie-talkies, where the line would stay permanently open so businesses could communicate with each other whenever they pleased.


The problem was letting the one side know when the other wanted to talk. In a letter to the president of the Central District and Printing Telegraph Company in Pittsburgh, who was about to bring the telephone to that city, Edison suggested saying БHello! Б would be the best way to get someoneБs attention. He was right. БHelloБ was noted as the official greeting in many of the first phone books. Official manuals of the first telephone exchanges (Ever see movies where switchboard operators connected two callers? ThatБs a telephone exchange) gave БhelloБ equal importance. Tatiana Ayazo/Rd. com Of course, what comes after БhelloБ is what really actually matters. If you canБt think up a memorable, Edison would have done all that hard work for nothing. More:,

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