Why Do We Answer the Phone With ‘Hello’?

Not as fun as "Ahoy."
Not as fun as "Ahoy." / Gerasimov174/iStock via Getty Images

Make up a word that starts with an h and contains a handful of l’s and vowels, and there’s a good chance it already exists. 

One of the oldest in recorded history is holla, an early 16th-century interjection meaning “Stop!” that came from an even older French word: holà. Variants proliferated over the next few centuries, most all of them used to get someone’s attention. Hillo (or hilloa), according to the Oxford English Dictionary, could “hail a distant or occupied person.” Hollo—or halloo, hallow, holloa, ho-lo, and many other spellings—was a precursor to holler that often involved shouting at hunting dogs.

It was only a matter of time before inventive spellers landed on hello, which first appeared in print in an 1826 issue of Connecticut’s Norwich Courier: “Hello, Jim! I’ll tell you what: I’ve a sharp knife and feel as if I’d like to cut up something or other.” In that and other instances from the era, hello was either used to flag someone down—much like you might yell “Hey!” today—or convey surprise. It wasn’t until a few decades later that people began to utter it (and its British versions, hullo and hulloa) in greeting.

By the late 19th century, the word was experiencing a boom in popularity that may never have happened without one Thomas Edison. As NPR reports, Edison is credited with encouraging hello as the go-to greeting for anyone answering a telephone call. He recommended it for callers, too.

“I don't think we shall need a call bell as Hello! can be heard 10 to 20 feet away. What do you think?” he wrote to Thomas B.A. David, president of Pittsburgh’s Central District and Printing Telegraph Co., in August 1877.

In other words, Edison didn’t initially think a telephone needed to ring—he thought the caller could simply shout “Hello!” to the person on the other end. So, in a way, the inventor was actually invoking the oldest definition of the word: to get someone’s attention. As the technology evolved beyond one always-open direct line between two people, it made more sense for the receiver to be the first to speak. And thanks in part to Edison’s influence on the burgeoning telephone industry, operating manuals often advised that they say “Hello.” The very first phone book, published in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1878, suggested “a firm and cheery ‘hulloa.’” (Instead of goodbye, the book listed “That is all” as a suitable sign-off.)

The fact that hello remains the favored way to start a phone conversation would likely rankle Alexander Graham Bell if he were still alive today: He wanted people to answer the telephone with “Ahoy.”

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