Friday, 28 August 2009

Hello, How Now, What Cheer - What's in a Word?

Stephen Fry had a thirty minute program on BBC Radio4 a few days ago, all about 'Hello'.

I like Mr. Fry; he's an entertaining erudite chap, both on TV and radio. He recently did a sort of tour of America.

Surprised that a small word like 'hello' could fill half an hour so well.

Is it just a greeting? Oh no. It can be an exclamation of surprise. Or a shout.

I was surprised to learn that one of the most used words, worldwide, has only been around since about 1830-something. Before then Shakespeare used the word Holla, a dog shout (holler?) or the greeting then was "How Now" and "What Cheer?" which turns into the cockney 'Wotcha'. My brother used to phone me and say "Wotcha", and I sometimes use it when meeting an old friend. I didn't know, until listening to Mr. Fry, that it was a sort of corruption of Shakespeare's 'what cheer'.

There's an old song which includes the verse:

"Wot cher!" all the neighbors cried
"Who yer gonna meet, Bill
Have yer bought the street, Bill"?
Laugh! I thought I should've died
Knocked 'em in the Old Kent Road

The last line above is the title of the song from the movie "The Little Princess" (1939) starring Shirley Temple!

I was surprised also to learn that 'hello' was probably first used in North America and imported into the UK by none other than Charles Dickens! It seems that in a play about Davy Crocket he says: "Hello, friend, don't forget that vote."

Dickens toured American around that time and in his "Christmas Carol" he uses the phrase "Hello, my fine fellow..." So, like the grey squirrel, we imported the word from the U.S.A. - according to Mr. Fry!

Then came the telephone. Bell invented it in around 1876. He apparently wanted the word "Ahoy" to be used when answering this amazing new invention. However, Edison, who also had wished he'd invented this before Bell, voted more for the word "Hello" to be used. And quite right too! Just imagine answering your phone "Ahoy there".

According to Mr. Fry, George Bernard Shaw once did a spell on a telephone exchange, as an operator and answered all calls with "Hello, what is wanted?" Well I never!

In 1913 a well-known song was written:

"Hello! Hello! Who's your lady friend?
Who's the little girl by your side?
I've seen you with a girl or two.
Oh! Oh! Oh! I'm (I AM) surprised at you."

Here the word "Hello" is used as a greeting, then as a word of surprise!

Then of course we have the famous "Hello, hello, hello.. what's going on 'ere then?" used by policemen! (in the UK I hasten to add)

A joke:

A policeman arrives home unexpectedly and finds his wife in bed with three strange men.

"Hello, hello, hello ..." says Mr. Policeman, whereupon his wife bursts into tears.

"Why are you crying, my love?" asks the husband.

"You never said hello to ME" sobs his wife! Boom, boom.


The Bug said...

Hello Philip! That was fun - loved the joke at the end.

PhilipH said...

Thanks m'dear. Can't claim any credit as it was all I could remember from the radio program.

Barbara's Spot on the Blog said...

How universal our simple greeting has become. I wonder how many times in one day it is uttered around the world...

scarlethue said...

Interesting! I love to follow the genealogy of our words. Language is one of my favorite things.

the walking man said...


Argent said...

Very interesting. I had heard that Hello was purely invented for the phone. Interestingly, in the Simpsons cartoon, Mr Burns, a very old man always answers the telepone with "Ahoy-hoy".

Land of shimp said...

You know, it's funny, but I think I've never given a thought to the origin of "Hello". I may have thought it was some cousin of the word "hailed".

lovelyprism said...

I love word origination, it's fun.

FireLight said...

Hellooooooo Phillip....just over from a visit at Willow Manor. I can tell I will need to read your blog more...I truly loved this post on "Hello!" Last spring I purchased a pair of clocks....Good Morning Sir! & Good Morning Madame!
My husband and I wake up to the voice of Stepehen Fry as Jeeves. Great fun!

PhilipH said...

Hello to you too, Firelight.

I've just popped by your blog and found it most enjoyable.

As McArthur said: 'I shall return!'

Jeeves and Wooster is one of my favourite sitcoms. Hugh Laurie makes the perfect upper class twit and Stephen Fry is superb as his 'gentleman's gentleman'. Great series; wonderful opening credits with the 1920 animated jazz band. They don't make 'em like that any more. Great pity.

Wish I had the clocks you mention!