In the form of "hallow", its possible earliest ancestor, "hello" dates back to at least 1340 and was used by Chaucer. In its modern form, it was first recorded in 1883 and its popularity rose with the advent of the telephone: it was Thomas Edison’s idea to use "hello" as a greeting, a suggestion which won out over Alexander Graham Bell’s, "ahoy".
In France, the first telephone was installed in Paris in 1879, and the American form of greeting was used and then francised to become allô, but it looks like "hello" may be of French origin:

Alteration of earlier "hallo" (1840 in Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge), itself an alteration of "holla", "hollo", a shout to attract attention (1588), a natural native formation, used to attract attention of someone, perhaps from the earlier English exclamation "holla!" said to be borrowed from Middle French holà (ho, exclamation to attract attention + , there); or perhaps influenced by German Hallo, holla, used to attract attention. The more probably explanation is that "hello", "hallo", "holla" and "hollo" are all natural formations in English and that they are parallel to natural formations in German, French and other, if not all, languages.
Chambers dictionary of etymology

Not everybody likes "hello": in 1997, Leonso Canales Jr. from Kingsville, Texas, proposed that Kleberg County should designate "heaven-o" as the county’s official greeting, on the grounds that "hello" contains the word "hell". His proposal was accepted unanimously even though, as shown above, "hello" is not etymologically related to "hell".

By | 2008-01-08T09:53:29+00:00 January 8th, 2008|Words|3 Comments

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.


  1. Fabio Said January 8, 2008 at 10:27 am

    It’s funny to think of hell-o, heaven-o, and it reminds me of another case of bad etymology: his-tory, her-story 🙂

  2. LInda Herbertson January 8, 2008 at 11:58 am

    “Listen very carefully, I will say zis only once” – did you ever see the Âlo âlo? television series, Céline? When I call Scotland I always start by saying “it is I, Leclerc…” to let them know I’m phoning from France. You must be as fed up of French stereotypes as I am of Scottish ones, and yet I keep dying my hair orange…
    I hate to nit pick about nuances or implications but “The first telephone was installed in Paris in 1879” suggests that France was the first to have telephones. I prefer the French version, which starts with “En France…”

  3. céline January 8, 2008 at 1:44 pm

    I love stereotypes and never leave my flat without my stripy top and my gauloise. I’ve never seen ‘Allo ‘Allo but it’s very much ingrained in the British psyche: people regularly mention it to me.
    You’re right about the second paragraph, I’m going to change it, thanks.

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