Hello, baby!

What did people say to babies before the 1820s?

Some weeks ago my two-month old daughter began to smile. The internet has this to say about how to encourage babies to do more of that:

Smile widely at her and offer a warm “hello” in that sing-song pitch parents do so well. [webmd.com]

My wife has been doing this since the baby was born, and does it exceedingly well, without having to look it up on the internet. And this morning I found myself saying “hello” repeatedly to my broad smiling baby. Then our house-guest came down and did exactly the same thing.

Which got me to wondering, how did English-speaking people make babies smile before this magical word was discovered? There were plenty of words available for greeting or hailing peers, but I can’t believe infants were coo-cooing to “ahoy” or “good morrow” in the olden days.

Those days weren’t so olden, in fact. It’s hard to imagine a world without hello, but the OED has the following fist-citation evidence for related forms of the greeting:

  • hello, 1827 (U.S. Telegraph) Hello, sez Joe Laughton, wher’s Bil Perry un Olla Parsons?
  • hallo, halloa 1841 (Charles Dickens)    ‘Halloa there! Hugh!’ roared John.
  • hullo, hulloa, 1857 (T. Hughes) Hullo, who’s there?

The big book says these likely developed from hollo and holla, interjections used not as greetings, but as a shout or ‘a call to excite attention’ since the sixteenth century, as in Shakespeare’s ‘Hollo, what storm is this?’ in Titus. Or perhaps from hillo, hilloa, a ‘call used to hail a distant or occupied person’WS again (in Hamlet): ‘Hillo, ho ho, come boy, come’. Or else from words related to holler, like hollo, hollow, holla, halloo. All these are probably related in some onomatopoeic way.

[Incidentally, now as-ubiquitous hi, related to ancient hey, eh, is from the same period and place as hello, first cited as a ‘chiefly N. Amer’ greeting in 1862, from M. D. Colt’s West to Kansas. This gets said plenty to baby as well.]

Even by the end of the nineteenth century, hello was not the universal greeting we know today, as the Google Books corpus shows.  Although by then it had jumped past coeval hallo,  and had definitively overtaken the good-old good morrow of Chaucer and Shakespeare, there were still as many or more ahoys out there than there were hellos [click graph for larger image]:hello1

It’s in the twentieth century that hello takes off, leaving the other greetings behind:


One theory about the rise of hello has to do with the spread of ringing telephones all across America, the proper greeting for which was apparently set by Thomas Edison:

Over at the laboratories of Edison’s rival, Bell was insisting on “Ahoy!” as the correct way to answer the telephone. It was trounced by “hello,” which became the standard as the first telephone exchanges, equipped by Edison, were set up across the United States and operating manuals adopted the word. The first public exchange, opened in New Haven on Jan. 28, 1878, wavered between “hello” and the fusty “What is wanted?” in its manual. By 1880, “hello” had won out. [“Great ‘Hello’ Mystery Is Solved”, NYT 5.3.1992]

This has an interesting social dimension:

“The phone overnight cut right through the 19th-century etiquette that you don’t speak to anyone unless you’ve been introduced,” Mr. Koenigsberg said. And “hello” was the edge of the blade. “If you think about it,” he said, “why didn’t Stanley say hello to Livingston? The word didn’t exist.”

Which brings me back to my original question: “Infant child, I presume” just isn’t going to to get the reaction I want from my daughter.

I wonder, can anyone think of any poems or stories from before about 1900 with cooing words spoken to an infant by a mother? All I can find in a quick search are of the sort: ‘ “Come to me, my dear”, said the mother.’

For Related items, See Poetry & Contingency Posts with the same tags as this post: , , , , ,


  • The OED thinks that hiya < how are you is merely “influenced” by the modern sense of hi, but I suspect that the latter is a further shortening of hiya and distinct from the older hi of surprise.

  • Nathan wrote:

    Fascinating. I always assumed that hello was one of the many English adaptations of a romance language import. Hola and Hallo (to become the more gentle hello) seem to be coincidental though?

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