A pleasantly discursive Cardus post by Nate Barksdale examines the history of “hello” as a telephone greeting:

Hello streamed into the gap created by an unprecedented social scenario, gaining popularity and, little by little, respectability. By the 1920s, Emily Post had given up on banning hello from her version of proper speech and simply tried to tame its former brashness: “On very informal occasions, it is the present fashion to greet an intimate friend with ‘Hello!’ This seemingly vulgar salutation is made acceptable by the tone in which it is said. To shout ‘Hullow!’ is vulgar, but ‘Hello, Mary’ or ‘How ‘do John,’ each spoken in an ordinary tone of voice, sound much the same. But remember that the ‘Hello’ is spoken, not called out, and never used except between intimate friends who call each other by the first name.”
… The fact that the message did not depend on the word itself was probably as key a factor as the device’s American pedigree in the internationalization of the telephone hello. This was especially [true] for languages that have an active distinction between the formal and informal you. In Bulgarian, say, the formal greeting is zdravejte, while the informal is a simple zdravej. The phone rings in Sofia: what do you do? Is the caller a friend or a stranger, an official, a salesman, a wrong number? Will it be zdravej or zdravejte? I know, alo!

Nate’s post was sparked off by his happening on Omniglot’s Hello in many languages, a page well worth visiting in its own right. Thanks for the link, Martin!


  1. “Hello” versus “This the Butler speakin’; Madam is indisposed, would you like to speak with Master ‘enery Madam ?”.
    Now Press
    1: for the butler
    2: for Master Henery
    3: Her Ladyship
    4: kids only

  2. Electric Dragon says

    QI also covered this topic:

  3. I see the old Alo cards used for public phones in Jordan are now a collectors’ item.

  4. According to a widespread urban legend, the telephone answering word comes from Hungarian “Hallom” (pronounced like English “Hullo”) which means “I hear it”, and was introduced by Tivadar Puskás, the collaborator of Edison and inventor of phone exchange. You can read the story in the Wikipedia article on Puskás.

  5. Fascinating ! Having now browsed Omniglot’s Hello in many languages, I am haunted by visions of a bilingual Choctaw/English speaker greeting his sister : “Halito, Sis !”.

  6. Тэрлэг says

    Read will have to confirm for me, but Omniglot’s missing “telephone hello” for Mongolian should surely be Байна уу.

  7. It’s said that Alexander Graham Bell liked to use “Ahoy”.

  8. When I was studying Mongolian, I was told that the following is a common greeting:
    “What’s new?”
    “Nothing much.”
    Which is actually common enough around here. The textbook went on to say that the dialogue continue as follows:
    “What’s new?
    “Nothing much. My mother died”.
    IE it’s like English “How or you?” or Chinese “Have you eaten”, in that it’s not a real question hoping for a real answer.
    Alas , my Mongolian studies never got very far.

  9. The great Leslie Phillips, British comedy actor of the 1960s, made a living from saying “ha-llooooo!” to attractive young ladies in a way that implied much more than Thomas Edison would have thought possible you could ever get into the word – Phillips actually called his autobiography Hello!, and you can hear him saying it here.

  10. Stephen Fry recently did a whole radio programme on the history of hello (part of his language series ‘English Delight’ on Radio 4 – BBC).
    Bell beat Edison to patent the telephone only by a couple of weeks. When it came to marketing Edison beat Bell. Bell’s telephone exchange ladies were trained to greet callers ‘Ahoy’, Edison’s girls were to say ‘Hello’. In France it sounds like ‘ah-lyo’ which was exported into Russian and is still used in this softer form more frequently than the hard ‘ah-loh’.
    Fry traces hello to the English hunting cry tally-ho. And another gem: British policemen were trained to say ‘Hello, hello, hello – what’s going on here?’ in a confident and authoritative way to break up street disturbances, a fight outside a pub for example. And it worked, no guns, batons or tazers.
    Fry also said that alternative spelling ‘hallo’ developed because religious people were loath to use a word which included ‘hell’. Is that plausible?

  11. Fry traces hello to the English hunting cry tally-ho.
    I love Stephen Fry like a brother, but you really don’t want to use him as a source for etymology. (Or, come to that, my brothers.)

  12. marie-lucie says

    Sashura: In France it sounds like ‘ah-lyo’
    Absolutely not. This must be how the Russians first interpreted the French allô (pronounced simply [a-lo]), since there is no [ly] in French (I mean the Russian “soft” or palatalized l).

  13. Yes, B, when on the phone you say – bain uu? which means are you there
    JE, that’s what’s news? – sonin yu baina? or sonin saikhan? (anything interesting, fine/beautiful?)
    The reply is, yes, usually nothing much – yumgui dee
    but the textbook is stupid with the example, anything else, but about one’s mother’s death one wouldn’t tell that casually
    most probably one wouldn’t tell at all an important news just after greeting, if ever would even tell

  14. baina uu

  15. come to think of it, sain uu/sain bna uu should be said before asking what’s new/news anyway
    otherwise it wouldn’t sound a normal greeting
    if formal greeting then, Amar baina uu?/Amar mend uu?(Were you peaceful/ safe?) apply, those greetings are used during the traditional new year celebrations, for example
    greetings at that time could be very long and elaborate, sometimes humorous, and involving all the household, with herds etc
    like in Targan tavtai övöljij baina uu? (but this also goes after asking Amar baina uu, means do you and your herd spend the winter fat and comfy and there are many variations of this)

  16. It’s your dime – start talking.

  17. Cormac McCarthy has his Southerners and Westerners frequently say “Hidy” (pronounced ‘high dee’), which is indeed a greeting you hear in the South (I dont hate it. I dont.) and the Southwest. To me, “hidy” always sounds somehow more welcoming and less like a ‘pitch’ introduction than “hello”, though I don’t say it myself. In McCarthy’s fiction, hidy can have a, ah, dubious quality . . .

  18. not were you, but have you been ka naa

  19. Could hidy be a version of howdy?

  20. Traditionally, in Punjabi you need to know the religion of the person being addressed to select the appropriate greeting from ਸਤਿ ਸ੍ਰੀ ਅਕਾਲ sat srī akāl, ਅੱਸਲਾਮ ਅਲੈਕਮ / السلام علیک asslām alaikam or ਨਮਸਤੇ namastē, which makes ਹੈਲੋ (hello) a fallback or catch-all.

  21. I dont hate it. I dont.
    I do love a good Faulkner quote aptly used.

  22. Speaking Stephen Fry.
    I believe Montegomery Burns from The Simpsons is supposed to answer the phone with Bell’s original greeting “ahoy ‘hoy”.
    Somewhere on the ‘net some years ago I saw a short article claiming you should always start a phone conversation with “hello”, because those two syllables are enough for a stranger to adjust to the standard frequency of your voice. If you venture directly into your message, the first bit will be lost, and your interlocutor will inevitably ask you to repeat what you just said.
    I was brought up to answer the phone with my family name, and I haven’t been able to get rid of that habit. Most strangers then ask “Is this Jens?”. Many people seem to use (or used to use) their number – but I’ve never been able to catch that, myself, so I had to ask “Is this <name>?”
    On the other hand, when I do phone someone I almost invariably say “Ja, goddag. Mit navn er Jens <last name> by way of introduction once there’s an answer. I do not know why I add that “yes”, but I do.

  23. *speaking of

  24. Cherie Woodworth says

    I have often found the Russian “Slushaiu Vas!” to be peremptory and off-putting. Was this form an effort to avoid the westernized “allo”? Was it used more in official communications? Is it still used?
    The most vivid example of Russian telephone etiquette that comes quickly to mind is that in the 70s film “Sluzhebnyi roman” (“Office Romance”), in which you get to hear how the super-businesslike agency head, the officious and ambitious deputy head, the work-averse receptionist, and the underlings all answer the phone at work.
    And now — ciao!

  25. marie-lucie says

    In France, people say allô when first speaking on the phone (answering the phone itself, or the person at the other end), but when I was small (and not everyone had a phone), my father always answered the phone with allô, j’écoute “hello, I’m listening”.

  26. That is, in terms of the urban legend, he first told it in Hungarian borrowed from Edison’s America, and then immediately translated it to French…
    I have often found the Russian “Slushaiu Vas!”…
    That is still true for provincial Russia. Or even a simple Dobryj ďeň, … (where … stands for the name of the speaker.)

  27. Could hidy be a version of howdy?
    Cab Calloway’s “hidy, hidy, hidy ho.”

  28. What about “goodbye” on the telephone? I have heard that in Mexico they say “okay bye” or “bueno bye”. In Jordan it’s “yalla bye.”

  29. marie-lucie, I’m pretty sure ‘hidy’ is a drawled version of ‘howdy’ (‘how do you do, guv’ner?’), speaking (the latter compression) which one would be smiling and so not make the ring with one’s lips: a – oo (“ow”). Maybe, the farther south of the Ohio river you go, pronounced more like ‘hah dee’ than ‘high dee’. Maybe, the farther west of the Mississippi you travel, you hear the rounded ‘how – dee’, but I don’t remember hearing a full ‘hOW – dee do’ too often.
    (And that ain’t soap from no gross vendor, goober nator.)

  30. John Emerson says

    I’ve heard “okay bye” at the end of a long face-to-face conversation, seemingly between mother and daughter, in Vietnamese.

  31. goodbye on the phone in my language would be just regular bayartai (literally it means, with joy)
    my family and friends use a lot poka (Russian) or bye

  32. marie-lucie says

    deadgod, a Canadian friend of mine who has always lived in BC invariably uses howdy (never hidy or anything in between) as a greeting whenever I meet him. I don’t know too many other people who do that regularly, but I have known the word for ages. I don’t think I have ever heard hidy, but I am not terribly familiar with Southern American accents.

  33. I know a German man in Hamburg who always uses “Ahoy!” as a greeting (in person). I’ve never found out why.

  34. do you and your herd spend the winter fat and comfy
    I think I’ll adopt that for the winter – it’s lovely.

  35. It’s all explained by Jeeves in “Minnie The Moocher”.

  36. David Marjanović says

    I know a German man in Hamburg who always uses “Ahoy!” as a greeting (in person). I’ve never found out why.

    Maybe he’s a sailor. Or maybe he’s Czech.

  37. michael farris says

    In Poland, słucham is a common way to answer the phone and means ‘I’m listening’. ‘Halo’ is also used, but sounds a little abrupt to me, maybe not to native speakers, as it’s other use is to get the attention of someone whose back is to you in public.
    At the link, the Spanish phone greetings need work as they differ by country. As I recall, diga is used in Spain and Bueno in Mexico, but I don’t recall the distribution of others.

  38. michael farris says

    Now that I’m here, Poles often end phone calls with a flurry of several different short expressions, any one of which should be enough, but the habit is to use several.
    “Na razie, cześć, hej, pa!” is pretty typical.

  39. Hello is actually “L.O.”, from “Lincoln’s ‘orrible”, the slogan of the Douglas campaign in the 1860 election.

  40. “L.O.” – lol!

  41. I have had the experience of phoning an Israeli company, to have the receptionist answer the phone with “What do you want?” which is, at least, efficient.

  42. Traditionally, in Punjabi you need to know the religion of the person being addressed to select the appropriate greeting from ਸਤਿ ਸ੍ਰੀ ਅਕਾਲ sat srī akāl, ਅੱਸਲਾਮ ਅਲੈਕਮ / السلام علیک asslām alaikam or ਨਮਸਤੇ namastē, which makes ਹੈਲੋ (hello) a fallback or catch-all.
    Interesting that you make this point regarding Panjabi. It is also true, of course, of Hindi/Urdu. However, while I have never met any Sikh or Muslim Panjabi who was offended by ਨਮਸਤੇ, or ਨਮਸਕਾਰ (which I always default to when uncertain of the person’s religious background), I do know at least one Hindu Panjabi who dislikes ਸਤਿ ਸ੍ਰੀ ਅਕਾਲ enough to correct gora visitors who try it, a rare departure from Indic treatment of guests.

  43. I have often found the Russian “Slushaiu Vas!” to be peremptory and off-putting
    It’s supposed to be. It’s mostly used by officials. I’ve never met a Russian who answers their home phone that way. You can soften it a bit by saying “Slushaiu Vas vnimatel’no” – I’m listening attentively.

  44. Does anyone know where the Italian “Pronto” comes from?
    In the Netherlands, most people in formal environments say “Goedemorgen/Goedemiddag, Morielje & Fléau Booksellers,met Firstname Lastname” ; but most halfway-thirty-and-younger people I know say “Hallo met First Name” at home.

  45. “Pool hall; 8-ball speaking.”

  46. No, no. It’s “Pool hall, Pool ain’t here, 8-ball speaking.”

  47. Actually, it was a parody of “Duffy’s Tavern, Duffy ain’t here, Archie speaking.”

  48. Actually, it’s “Archie the manager speaking, Duffy ain’t here.” Radio, TV, Wikipedia.

  49. David Eddyshaw says

    Japanese phone-answering is of course not “konnichi wa” but “moshi moshi.” This is also what you say to somebody in a daze to snap them out of it, “Ground control to N!”

    I’ve no idea *why* you answer the phone by saying “supposing, supposing.” (But then “as for today” is suitably inconsequential as a greeting, too.)

    I am quietly confident that somebody here will be able to explain it all. I expect it goes back to Heian telephone etiquette.

    Italian “pronto” at least makes sense: “ready!” i.e. “fire away, I’m listening!” I can see that.

  50. I’ve heard that moshi moshi comes from mōshi mōshi, meaning something like ‘I say I say’ (or ‘I speak I speak’).

  51. In Germany, when I grew up it was customary to answer your phone saying just your last name (or the name of the company / institution plus your last name in case of a workplace phone), without any introductory word like “Hallo” or similar. Nowadays, it has become somewhat more usual to just repond with “Hallo” or a combination of “Hallo” and your last name (“Hallo, (hier (ist)) Müller / Müller hier”). For this, you use a slightly interrogative intonation – not implying that you’re not sure about your own name, but indirectly asking your opposite to state their name and business.

  52. Trond Engen says

    When I grew up I was taught to reply by “Engen” — in a slightly interrogative intonation. It may have been an indirect question for the name, as you say, but it also made you sound less harsh, more interested in what the other person has to say in general. A conclusive-sounding “Engen” would imply “I have no time for this. Deliver your message. Move on.”

    Later, moving out, it became “Trond” or “Hei, det er Trond!” Nowadays, answering my mobile, I usually say “Hei, <name of caller>!”

  53. David Eddyshaw says


    Ah. As in 申し上げる mōshiageru. Makes sense. Many thanks.

  54. In Irish hospitals, meiner Erfahrung nach, it is the Galway-trained doctors who answer their bleeps (= pagers) with “Hello?”, a singularly unhelpful response when it is routine for someone else to have called the phone between the bleep being sent and the doctor responding to it, or for the bleep to have sent a wrong number, or for the doctor to call back the wrong number. ‘This is my name/my on-call role’ is my current habit.

    (Yes, yes, we use mobile phones too, but bleeps have the advantage of universal signal coverage within the hospital, and being exclusively for work. We haven’t in general been issued work mobiles.)

  55. John Cowan says

    I answer a work phone John Cowan, with a rise in pitch on the stressed syllable, so as not to sound curt (as Trond mentions above). I almost always use Hello at home or on my cell (I normally get cell calls only from intimates, as I am quite cautious about handing the number out). The pitch depends on the situation: high pitch if I am glad to hear from someone, falling-rising pitch to convey “I’m not sure why you are calling me”, uniformly low pitch to mean “Oh, it’s you again” or if I suspect the caller is a nuisance caller using a new number that I haven’t blocked yet, uniformly middle pitch if I’m overworked and really don’t have time for this call.

  56. David Marjanović says

    In Germany, when I grew up it was customary to answer your phone saying just your last name (or the name of the company / institution plus your last name in case of a workplace phone), without any introductory word like “Hallo” or similar.

    Moral guardians hated that, and insisted a greeting should be added – after the name. It has caught on to a limited degree.

  57. I had a vague a memory of a humorous ditty on the subject of answering the phone, written in response to an instruction in old British phone books that told people “don’t say hello, announce your identity.”

    Thanks to to the all-knowing google, I found the full verses in a 1948 edition of the employee newsletter of Brookhaven National Lab, which credits A.P. Herbert in Punch:

    Don’t say, “Hello!”
    Announce your identity,
    Indicate your species.
    Classify your entity,
    Enumerate the marks by which the scientific mind
    Can certainly distinguish you from others of your kind;
    State your major measurements, and where you were designed—
    But don’t say, “Hello!” –

    Don’t say, “Hello!”
    Unseasonable levity,
    Gross lack of reverence,
    unfashionable brevity!
    Tabulate your ancestors and name your lucky star;
    What is your religion and the number of your car?
    Or, to put it rather crudely, TELL THE FELLOW WHO YOU ARE
    Don’t say, “Hello !”

  58. Stu Clayton says

    It has caught on to a limited degree.

    I still just answer the phone by saying “Clayton”, in the most neutral to encouraging tone I can manage, depending on my mood. I have forgotten how I answered the phone in the States 50 years ago.

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