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What Does Goodbye Actually Mean?

Ellen Gutoskey
What is a bye?
What is a bye? / SDI Productions/iStock via Getty Images // (Speech Bubble) ajwad_creative/iStock via Getty Images
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When you tell someone “Goodnight,” you’re basically saying “I hope you have a good night” or something to that effect. The same goes for most other greeting and parting expressions that begin with good: Good day, good morning, good evening, good afternoon, etc. Following that trend, it seems like goodbye must be short for “I hope you have a good bye” and bye must be some obsolete term for a certain time of day.

But neither of those assumptions is true. In fact, bye started out as an abbreviation—and good wasn’t originally good at all.

As far back as the 14th century, English speakers were saying “God be with you” when they parted ways. It took a little while for them to land on a suitable shortening of the phrase, but they got there by the mid-16th century. In 1575, per the Oxford English Dictionary, godbwye appeared in print for the first time, in a letter from English scholar Gabriel Harvey.

“And then to requite your gallonde of godbwyes, I regive you a pottle of howedyes,” he wrote. In today’s English, Harvey’s poetic sentiment loosely translates to this one: “And then to reciprocate your gallon of goodbyes, I give you back a half-gallon of howdies.” (Howdy, by the way, has its roots in how do you do?)

But the evolution of God be with you to godbwye and then to goodbye wasn’t linear—people seemingly spelled the expression however they wanted to. Examples include God be wy you, God buoye, good bwi’t’ye, good b’ w’ y, and so on. Shakespeare alone wrote it at least three different ways in three different plays.

As for how God became good, it’s generally believed that people were influenced by all those other good phrases: Good day and goodnight had already been around since the 13th century. While God be with you remains a relatively common utterance in religious circles, goodbye—which started cropping up in the early 1700s—eventually supplanted it as a secular farewell. In other languages’ versions of goodbye, however, the religious connection is still crystal-clear. Both the French adieu and the Spanish adios literally translate to “to God.”

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