Saying ‘Ahoy-Hoy’ was at One Time the Preferred Way to Answer the Phone

Today I found out saying “ahoy-hoy” was at one time the preferred way to answer the phone.

The very brief popularity of this telephone greeting stemmed from the fact the “ahoy-hoy” was Alexander Graham Bell’s preferred way to answer the phone.  Ahoy-hoy derives from the term “ahoy”, which is generally associated with being a nautical term used for hailing ships.  However, there is also significant evidence that it was popularly used as a way to more or less say “hello” in non-nautical situations.  Further, “hoy” was commonly used as far back as the 14th century as a call to use while driving cattle.  This precedes the first known instance of it being used in the nautical sense, attached with a leading ‘a’ sound (“a-hoy”).

The exact origins of the word “ahoy” aren’t known beyond that it stems from this Middle English exclamation, “hoy!”  The most popular theory as to the origin of “hoy” is that it derives from the Dutch word “hoi”, meaning “hello”.  An alternate widely accepted theory states that it came from the Czech word “Ahoj”, also meaning something to the effect of “hello”.  Yet another theory, albeit slightly less widely accepted, is that it stems from the Old Norse “heill”, which eventually gave rise to the Middle English “hail” and perhaps “hoy”.

Whatever the case, “Ahoy-hoy” quickly got beat out in the U.S. and many other English speaking countries by “hello”, which was Thomas Edison’s favorite thing to say when answering the phone.  The invention of the word hello is often credited to Thomas Edison, including on the popular BBC show QI (Quite Interesting), which is normally an exceptionally accurate program (and which is unfortunately not aired in the United States).  In this case, though, QI got one wrong when they stated Edison invented the word “hello”.

In fact, the first documented case of the word “hello” being used as a greeting predates Thomas Edison, appearing in The Sketches and Eccentricities of Col. Davey Crockett, which was written in 1833, about 14 years before Edison was born.  The exact quote from the text is: “Said I, ‘Hello stranger! if you don’t take keer your boat will run away with you.'”  Further, based on significant literary evidence, it would seem that by around the 1860s, “hello” had become an extremely popular greeting. This popularity also predates the invention of the commercially viable telephone device.  In addition to that, it predates the first known instance of Edison writing the word “hello”, which was in a letter he wrote in 1877 to the president of the Central District and Printing Telegraph Company of Pittsburgh, where he suggested that using “hello” was the best way to start a telephone conversation.

Similar to Graham Bell’s reason for liking “ahoy hoy”, Edison liked “hello” as a telephone greeting because it was easily heard and distinguished from other words, even over long distance transmissions (for the time).  As Edison stated, “hello” could be heard clearly on a transmission “ten to twenty feet away”.  Edison originally tested this using a prototype of Graham Bell’s telephone system.

The word “hello” also has somewhat obscure origins, though many etymologists think it came from the English “hullo” or “hallo”, which derive from “hollo”, which was an exclamation to draw attention to something.  This word, in turn, is thought to derive from “holla”, which meant “stop or cease”.  Another slightly less popular theory is that “hello” ultimately derives from the Old English “hál béo þu”, meaning “Hale be thou”, which was more or less just a way to wish someone good health.

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Bonus Facts:

  • The standard responses to “ahoy”, when used in nautical terms, vary depending on who’s on the boat being hailed.  If you have a commissioned officer aboard, “aye aye” is the correct response.  If no officer is aboard, “no no” is the correct response.  If a captain of a different ship is on board, the name of the ship is the proper response.  Finally, if an admiral is aboard the vessel, the proper response is “flag”.
  • “Ahoy hoy” has seen something of a resurgence in the last couple decades thanks to the fact that Mr. Burns on The Simpsons, uses it as his standard greeting when answering the phone.
  • According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first written record of the word “ahoy” comes from the Wonderful Adventures of Peregrine Pickle, written in the 1750s: “Ho! The house ahoy! What cheer!” “Ahoy!”
  • Because “hello” quickly usurped “ahoy hoy”, by 1889, telephone operators became known as “hello-girls”.
  • The first documented use of the word “hollo” is thought to be from the poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, written in 1798: “And the good south wind still blew behind, But no sweet bird did follow, Nor any day for food or play Came to the mariners’ hollo!”
  • While Alexander Graham Bell didn’t technically develop the first telephone-like device, he was the first to create a commercially viable telephone device, which drastically improved on many existing devices of the day, which is why he is credited as being the inventor of the telephone, even though similar devices existed when he invented his contraption.
  • Instead of saying the German equivalent of “hello”, it is common in Germany to simply answer the phone by stating your last name.
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  • What about the Spanish greeting Hola? It means “hi”. Isn’t “hi” awfully close to “hoy”?

  • ‘Hola’ in Spanish means ‘hello’ in English (‘hallo’ in German).

    ‘Hoy’ in Dutch means ‘hi’ in English.