It’s the word which starts the majority of our conversations. It’s known the world over and it’s probably the first word any English language learner will learn. But hello isn’t quite the fundamental, time-honored greeting you might expect it to be. In fact, it’s been popular for less than 150 years.
Hello was originally a variant of hallo which itself had numerous variants such as holloa, hillo and halloo, all of which were used as a call to attract attention and this seems to trace back to around 1400. The OED suggests that the original root was Old High German holon, meaning ‘to fetch’, which was used to hail a ferryman in particular.
It was the invention of the telephone which really did the trick for hello. Initially, the word used on the experimental switchboard in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1878 was ahoy. Then are you there? stood its ground for a while. But it was Thomas Edison’s hello that finally won out, despite the preference of his rival, Alexander Graham Bell, for ahoy. By 1889, central telephone exchange operators were referred to as hello-girls and before long it was loaned into other languages, including allo in French, hallo in Afrikaans and haló in Hindi.