Mind your language

After many centuries, the triumph of ‘hi’ is complete

16 December 2017

9:00 AM

16 December 2017

9:00 AM

A book that changed my way of looking at the world was The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren. It showed how playground rhymes and games were handed down to new generations without direct involvement of grown-ups. Iona Opie, one half with her husband, Peter, of the team that brought out the book in 1959, died this year, aged 94. In their research, they built up the world’s biggest private collection of children’s books, now in the Bodleian Library. I remember the thrill of finding duplicates, with their bookplate, in the Charing Cross Road 30 years ago.

Children, with their independent culture, can parody things from the adult world. One rhyme that stayed in my memory had been inspired by three things: Mitch Miller’s hit recording from 1955 of ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’, the James Stewart film The Man from Laramie, from the same year, and Disney’s 1956 Davy Crockett film.

The Yellow Rose of Texas and the Man from Laramie
Went down to Davy Crockett’s to have a cup of tea;
The tea was so delicious, they had another cup,
And poor old Davy Crockett had to do the washing up.

Another rhyme, from 1957, used the strong rhythm required by a skipping rhyme:

Hi, Roy Rogers! How about a date?
Meet me at the corner at half past eight.
I can do the rumba, I can do the splits,
I can do the turn-arounds, I can do the kicks.


I think that 2017 has seen the greeting Hi!, clearly right for the King of the Cowboys in 1957, triumph 60 years on as the default salutation for emailing. Not that hi was invented in the 1950s. In ‘The Hunting of the Snark’ (1876), the Baker, who had forgotten his name, ‘would answer to “Hi!” or to any loud cry’. But Lewis Carroll meant it as an interjection rather than as the greeting that in his day was already becoming established in America. It was recorded earliest in the mouth of an Indian (as we used to call them) by Miriam Davis Colt in Went to Kansas (1862), her account of travelling with her husband in 1856 to begin a city of vegetarians. Things did not work out well.

As an exclamation, hi is centuries older. A poem, ‘Hunting the Hare’, from the late 15th century contains the line ‘Thei cryed, “Hy, hy!” all at ones “Kyll! kyll! for kockes bownes!” ’ (This cock’s bones business is a dissimulated oath, in place of God’s bones. It is also found in two Tudor dramas that are close rivals never to be read, Ralph Roister Doister and Gammer Gurton’s Needle.)

People who don’t begin emails to perfect strangers with Hi, in Google dress-down-Friday bean-bag style, sometimes start with Hello. Hello and its cousins have also been around as cries for centuries. Hamlet, elated after seeing the Ghost, calls out: ‘Hillo, ho, ho, boy; come bird, come’ (a falconry cry). I don’t know whether Dickens, given to amateur dramatics, was reminded of this when Scrooge in A Christmas Carol is converted after seeing his own ghosts and can’t help shouting ‘Hallo!’ and ‘Whoop!’ But then he needs someone to fetch a turkey for Bob Cratchit and, as always in Victorian London, a boy is loitering in the street, to whom he calls, ‘Hallo, my fine fellow!’ to which the boy replies ‘Hallo!’ It’s a transition from distant call to close-quarters greeting.

Historically, hallo is older than hello. Hello, so people who enjoy QI on television often tell me, was popularised by Edison as a telephone greeting in preference to Alexander Graham Bell’s Ahoy! As the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette explained it vaguely in 1906, ‘At a dinner some time ago Thomas A. Edison claimed the credit for inventing the greatest time-saving device of the telephone service. He said he was the man who suggested using the word “hello” instead of the clumsier expressions of the earlier days — “Do I get you?” and “Are you there?”’

I regret the loss of ‘Are you there?’ It has an existential urgency that hello lacks. I remember hearing it used by the late Sir Harold Hood Bt, born in 1916, who also managed the art of keeping his handkerchief in his sleeve. I couldn’t see my husband succeeding in that. But I shall encourage him in 2018 to begin all his emails ‘Are you there?’ Its peremptory buttonholing might annoy, so I’ll see how he gets on before I decide whether to try it too.

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