You won’t find the word “Hello” in any plays by Shakespeare, letters by John Adams, Webster’s early dictionaries, newspapers, poems, or novels before 1826. That’s because it didn’t exist.
Not until Oct. 18, 1826 will you find the word in a newspaper, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
On that day, the Norwich Courier printed the word “hello” for what was probably the first time ever.
After the Norwich paper printed it, a few decades passed before many people adopted it – or its cousin, hullo. In 1871, for example, when journalist Henry Stanley found explorer David Livingstone in Tanzania, he greeted him with: “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.” He had to – he didn’t have “Hello” at his disposal.
But soon, hello would begin to catch on, starting in Connecticut.
Hello First Appears
Before hello became a thing, English speakers had some other options, like hallo, holla, and hollo. But they didn’t mean what hello means today.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “The word was more often used as a means of attracting someone’s attention (“Hello, what do you think you’re doing?”) or to express some form of mild surprise (“Hello, what have we here?”).
“Howdy” and “Hi” actually predate hello. Howdy, a contraction of How do ye do, first appeared in print in 1632. “Hi” goes as far back as the early Middle Ages.
Then came the Norwich Courier. The expression was used thusly: ‘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.’ The context is unclear. Was it used as a greeting, or to attract Jim’s attention? And was it quoting a real person (suggesting people were actually using “hello”) or was it a story someone made up?
The OED attributes the spread of Hello to Thomas Edison. The inventor initiated the practice of saying “hello” to answer the telephone. For years that was lore, according to some of his contemporaries. In 1907, Frederick Perry Fish, president of A.T.&T., said Edison came up with hello as an alternative to “Are you there?” or “Are you ready to talk?”
Edison gets credit for inventing something called the carbon button transmitter, an improvement over Alexander Graham Bell’s design. But his influence on the development of the telephone went beyond that. Edison didn’t just invent, he created systems that put his inventions into people’s hands
Until 1992, however, the evidence that Edison had started “hello” was pretty much hearsay. And that was not good enough for a Brooklyn College classics professor Alan Koenigsberg. He went on a mission to find out who had first decided people should answer the phone with “Hello.”
In the A.T.&.T. archives in Manhattan, Koenigsberg discovered the letter that cemented Edison’s reputation as the Hello Man. Edison’s friend, T.B.A. David, was president of the Central District and Printing Telegraph Company of Pittsburg. In 1877, David wanted to introduce the telephone into his city. The telephone exchange didn’t exist yet; the telephone would work as a device for business communications, in which two parties would have an open line between them. But David wondered how anyone would know someone wanted to talk to them? A bell, a buzz, some sort of signal?
Edison’s answer to David came in the August 1877 letter discovered by Koenigsberg. “Friend David, I do not think we shall need a call bell as Hello! can be heard 10 to 20 feet away. What you think? Edison – P.S. first cost of sender & receiver to manufacture is only $7.00.”
Alexander Graham Bell, credited with inventing the first commercial telephone, thought “Ahoy” a better telephone greeting than “Hello.”
But as the American public adopted the telephone with tremendous speed, they also adopted Edison’s preferred greeting.
Five months after Edison penned his letter to T.B.A. David, the country’s first telephone exchange opened in New Haven, the District Telephone Company.
With the telephone exchange came the first telephone directory, which had 50 subscribers. And in it came instructions for using the phone.
“Never take the Telephone off the hook unless you wish to use it….Should you wish to speak to another subscriber… you should…commence the conversation by saying ‘Hulloa!’ When you are done talking, say ‘That is all!’, and the person spoken to should say ‘O.K.’ … While talking, always speak slow and distinct, and let the telephone rest lightly against your upper lip, leaving the lower lip and the jaw free…”
In 1878, the same year the New Haven exchange opened, Mark Twain had a phone installed in his Hartford home. Soon he invented something else: a comedy routine involving a one-sided telephone conversation.
Nearly a century later, Bob Newhart would perfect the comedic monologue introduced by Twain in his 1880 essay, A Telephonic Conversation. Twain wrote:
A member of our household came in and asked me to have our house put into communication with Mr. Bagley’s downtown. I have observed, in many cities, that the sex always shrink from calling up the central office themselves. I don’t know why, but they do. So I touched the bell, and this talk ensued:
CENTRAL OFFICE. gruffy. Hello!
That, as far as anyone knows, was the first time “Hello” appeared in literature.
Alexander Graham Bell never gave up. He answered the phone with “ahoy” for the rest of his life. He was an inventor, not a wordsmith, and he had another miss with his suggestion for a name for flying machines – aerodromes.
Connecticut’s special relationship with the word hello continued. In 1960, a Connecticut doo-wop group recorded a song called Hello. And then in 1999, Burt Bachrach wrote an instrumental soundtrack for a film about author Jacqueline Susann, called Hello, Connecticut. Although neither, it seems, lived in Connecticut.
With thanks to The Phone Book: The Curious History of the Book That Everyone Uses But No One Reads By Ammon Shea.
Images: Hello Kitty By Official Sanrio website http://www.hellokitty.ne.jp/english/kt_family.html, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35100852. Adele By Condé Nast (through Vogue Taiwan), CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=112467595. This story updated in 2023.