August 16, 2017

The sarcastic meaning of "Hello" is traced to "Back to the Future": "Hello, hello? Anybody home? Hey! Think, McFly. Think."

In the Oxford English Dictionary:





Why am I researching the word "hello" at 4 in the morning? I started out writing something — it will be up next soon — about Trump's press conference, which I wanted to call "hairy." But I wasn't sure "hairy" really is used and understood anymore — "hairy," not in the sense of covered with hair (though with Trump that alternative meaning distracts us), but in the sense of difficult, rough, wild, frightening. It was common slang years ago, enough that The New Yorker had a cartoon in 1971 with the caption "And do you, Elizabeth, take this man, John, to have and to hold, to love and to cherish, until the going gets hairy?"

To check for currency, I looked up "hairy" in the Urban Dictionary, and one thing I found was "Hey do you have the hairies on that?," which got me clicking through to "hey," one of the great English language words that you use all the time but don't think too much about. Years ago — back in the 50s and 60s — many adults would correct you if you thought you could get their attention with "Hey." Often they'd deploy the corny riposte "Hay is for horses." I think these were the same adults who would tell you "A kid is a baby goat" if you were crass enough to refer to a human child as a "kid."

Hey, kids...



... I wanted to track down the origin of "hey." "Hey" is such an old word that the OED's oldest use is unreadable: "Hei! hwuch wis read of se icudd keiser!" (a1225). Unreadable, except that we get the meaning of "Hei!" Even 200 years later, it's hard to understand. This is a line in a Christmas carol: "Hey, hey, hey, hey, The borrys hed is armyd gay." I'm just going to guess that there's some excitement about the presentation of a boar's head.

Anyway, "hey" got me thinking about "hi" — a great word that I'll do a separate post about sometime — and then "hello." I thought "hello" had been invented for speaking on the phone, but "hello" — the interjection defined by its use ("Used to attract attention") — goes back to 1826 in the Norwich (Conn.) Courier: "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." And then in 1833, "Sketches & Eccentricities Col. David Crockett":
"I seed a white man walking off with my plate. I says, ‘Hello, mister, bring back my plate.’"

The first telephone-related "hello" comes in 1877 from Thomas Edison: "I do not think we shall need a call bell as Hello! can be heard 10 to 20 feet away. What you think?" I think you are wrong, Mr. Edison. We need a bell!

Did you know that it was Thomas A. Watson, not the man with the name Bell, who invented the bell for the telephone:
It is impossible to say exactly how vital Watson’s role was in the invention of the phone, but he was certainly far more than a mere assistant. During the seven years he worked for Bell, he secured sixty patents in his own name, including one for the distinctive ringing bell that was for decades an invariable part of every phone call made. Remarkably, before this, the only way to know if someone was trying to get through to you was to pick up the phone from time to time and see if anyone was there.
That's from Bill Bryson's "At Home: A Short History of Private Life." I don't know if you had to pick up the phone. It seems as though Edison's idea was that the phone would be left off the hook — if the hook was even part of the phone — and if you were calling you'd say "hello!" and if the person on the other end was within 10 or 20 feet, you'd get their attention, just as if you were there in person trying to get their attention with a "hey!" And why not "hey"? Apparently, "hello!" carries farther.

When shouting from a mountaintop or into a cave — or into a hollow skull — you always choose "hello":

54 comments:

Ann Althouse said...

Why is the "Back to the Future" quote in brackets?

From the OED "Key to symbols and other conventions": "indicates a quotation is relevant to the development of a sense but not directly illustrative of it."

Ann Althouse said...

I think Biff was using a standard bullying line when he banged on George McFly's head and said "Hello? Anybody home?"

I don't believe that was invented for the movie, but Biff was a stereotype of a bully with lingo from the 1950s (even though the scene in that clip takes place in the 1980s, before the trip to the 1950s). I think it was funny in part because we remember the conventions of the bully stereotype. But I could be wrong. Maybe Biff set the stereotype and imprinted a false memory of what bullies in the 50s were like.

antiphone said...

Hey kids, plug into the faithless
Maybe they're blinded
But Bennie makes them ageless
We shall survive, let us take ourselves along
Where we fight our parents out in the streets
To find who's right and who's wrong

Ann Althouse said...

"Bennie and the Jets" and "Rock On" were both originally recorded in 1973 — "Bennie" in May and "Rock On" in August.

There must be a common ancestor.

David Begley said...

619 comments below. A record? Hello.

Danno said...

Wow, up early this morning. The Back to the Future movies were always fun, and released before I had children.

Ann Althouse said...

My quick research leads me to think that there were comic book racks that had a sign at the top "HEY !! KIDS/COMICS."

Maybe kids who grew up reading comics had that phrase imprinted in their heads.

I don't remember those racks myself.

Danno said...

Biff always had an affinity for manure piles.

Ann Althouse said...

"619 comments below. A record? Hello."

Not a record. We've got over 700. Some of that involved commenters trying to make it go over a number, to hit a new high, as if the comments count were something like a pinball score.

Ann Althouse said...

Hello, all you early risers.

Or have you been up all night?

Are you resetting your internal clock so you can jump in the car in the middle of the night on Monday morning to tear across the country for the solar eclipse?

Danno said...

As to comment numbers, quality not quantity is best. Otherwise, those threads when someone like ARM goes on a tirade and people keep responding would be elevated to where they don't belong.

traditionalguy said...

Hey and Hello both are commands to listen to the speaker: Like the German "Achtung" or the Army's loud call of "Attention", or at the crowded dinner tapping silver on a glass and calling " listen up."

These words are much used because listening to the speaker is the sine qua non to OBEDIENCE.

traditionalguy said...

Hello, Professor who is a Time Zone behind.

Ann Althouse said...

"As to comment numbers, quality not quantity is best. Otherwise, those threads when someone like ARM goes on a tirade and people keep responding would be elevated to where they don't belong."

Yes, that's what I call "back and forth." It's a problem, and I have asked people not to do it and I sometimes delete it, especially when it's full of comments that name another commenter. If somebody's name keeps coming up, they're involved in back and forth, and they need to stop taking the bait (or being the bait). Often really low quality stuff happens with just 2 commenters doing little more than calling each other stupid.

rhhardin said...

You can't comb the hair on a billiard ball.

Math.

rhhardin said...

Hello anybody home is to say you're not a burglar in case somebody's home.

Earnest Prole said...

Ann the Etymologist is a far better early-morning read than Ann the Neo-Nazi Defense Attorney.

Big Mike said...

Was awakened by s need to use the bathroom. Going back to bed.

rhhardin said...

I figured out that Imus is broadcasting a weak beep beep beep like some alarm going off every few minutes. The question is whether it's one of my alarms saying weak battery or it's coming over the air. You can't localize it very well.

It never happens in a commercial break. Aha.

Big Mike said...

Oh, is there an eclipse due Monday? Who knew?

We purchased eclipse-viewing glasses via the Althouse portal. But did Althouse give me a smiley face emoji? No! Did Meade send a gold star? No again!

3rdGradePB_GoodPerson said...

"Often really low quality stuff happens with just 2 commenters doing little more than calling each other stupid."

If they'd go back and forth as they repeatedly call each other "low quality", it'd be okay.

Curious George said...

"Ann Althouse said...
Hello, all you early risers.

Or have you been up all night?

Are you resetting your internal clock so you can jump in the car in the middle of the night on Monday morning to tear across the country for the solar eclipse?"

Mornin'. Nope, moving into a new house today.

traditionalguy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
traditionalguy said...

Moving into a new house is always exciting. As I recall, same size house uses same sized furniture. But larger house needs larger furniture. Until a smaller house means selling/donating much of the large furniture.

Meanwhile, the Professor dreams the perfect small house needing only a table, a chair and a bed that are small.

antiphone said...

"Bennie and the Jets" and "Rock On" were both originally recorded in 1973 — "Bennie" in May and "Rock On" in August.

There must be a common ancestor.



My money's on Mrs Murphy.

Ann Althouse said...

"We purchased eclipse-viewing glasses via the Althouse portal. But did Althouse give me a smiley face emoji? No! Did Meade send a gold star? No again!"

I don't see who's buying things on Amazon. That's important privacy. What if you bought something embarrassing? You don't have to worry!

Feel free to make a PayPal contribution. Then I get an email that lets me see your email address and I can answer. You also get a place to put a note, such as: "I prefer Ann the Etymologist to Ann the Neo-Nazi Defense Attorney" or "I appreciate your defense of free-speech rights of even the most-hated element of our society."

rhhardin said...

The current weather forecast for the 21st has a thunderstorm right after the eclipse. Apparently eclipses are not taken into account in weather forecasts.

3rdGradePB_GoodPerson said...

"I don't see who's buying things on Amazon."

Meadehouse does know what is purchased. IMHO, it was uninteresting when some of those details were routinely front paged.

In some ways the interestingness of items could depends on the embarrassingness of the items. Still, who would care what embarrassing or not embarassing stuff was purchased by other peeps? Not me.

AReasonableMan said...

3rdGradePB_GoodPerson said...
"I don't see who's buying things on Amazon."

Meadehouse does know what is purchased.


That was my earlier understanding.

Laslo Spatula said...

"Hey kids, where are you?
Nobody tells you what to do, baby
Hey kids, rock and roll
Nobody tells you where to go, baby, baby, baby"

Drive (R.E.M. song)

From Wiki:

"Stipe has also said the song is an "obvious homage to 'Rock On' by David Essex," which features a similar line..."

I am Laslo.

Henry said...

The next time someone calls me stupid on Althouse, I'm going to write:

"I seed a white man walking off with my plate. Hello, mister, bring back my plate."

Sarcastically. ;)

Ralph L said...

When there's an incoming call at my house, a hand pops out of a box and hands me the telephone.

I always say "thank you", but I don't think the thing has ears.

Known Unknown said...

The "Hello, anyone home?" Biff thing is older than BTTF. It was a somewhat common insult? for people who were being seemingly dense.

Fernandinande said...

Did you know that it was Thomas A. Watson, not the man with the name Bell, who invented the bell for the telephone:

No, I didn't know that.

Here is Bell's patent (# 186787) for the telephone and its bell.

Ann Althouse said...

""Stipe has also said the song is an "obvious homage to 'Rock On' by David Essex," which features a similar line...""

Thanks for reminding me of that song. Yes, the line is the same, not just the words but the music. Other references to old songs: "rock around the clock."

It also caused me to look up "shack-a-lack" and I found this.

Wilbur said...

Gomer: "Goober says Hey, Andy."

Andy: "Hey to Goober."

Ann Althouse said...

Yes, I can see what is purchased but not who bought it.

When we front-paged some of that stuff, it was because we thought it was interesting or that somebody else might be motivated to buy it.

Actually, I've forgotten how to see what's purchased. Maybe they've changed that.

I don't remember seeing anything embarrassing. What would be embarrassing? Sex toys?

Ralph L said...

AlTee shirts

Ralph L said...

Adult diapers
Catheters
Nose hair clippers
Fanny Hill
Benny Hill
Big Black Cocks fuck Nazi girls in the ass


Big Mike said...

Yes, I can see what is purchased but not who bought it.

Well, the order for condoms in 2X Big/3X Long were for me. Not that I'm embarrassed about it.

Ralph L said...

Toupées
Birth of a Nation

This is harder than I thought
Everything is about sex

Wonder Bread
Twinkies ship better

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Big Mike said...

And I like the former law professor who tries to remind us that there is a Constitution, a First Amendment, a presumption of innocence, a need to find beyond a reasonable doubt, and a rule of law.

Earnest Prole said...

Think of me as your canary in the coal mine, alerting you when your admirable love of free speech leads you too close to dangerous noxious gasses.

Earnest Prole said...

Like you I’m pretty much a free-speech absolutist both legally and culturally, so we’re in violent agreement on the value of that; it’s the defense-attorney angle here and here that I fear could lead some of your commenters to justify what clearly appears to be an act of terror.

Ralph L said...

clearly appears
I think that was part of her point.

Earnest Prole said...

Agreed: she made the best possible case for this excitable young Teutonic-American with poor driving skills. Accidents happen.

Rigelsen said...

When the narrative takes hold, facts and the truth itself often become casualties. I appreciate The Professor reminding us to reserve judgement until the facts are more clear. Liberty and justice are owed the reprehensible no less than the most noble. Unfortunately, it seems too many of us see ourselves above such quaint notions.

Ralph L said...

If the hood doesn't fit, you must acquit.

Earnest Prole said...

And speaking of Teutonic, the dance breaks in “Rock On” are the whitest thing I’ve ever seen.

Big Mike said...

@Earnest, Althouse wanted us to consider whether there were grounds for reasonable doubt. I can see that. As I said at the time, if I were on the jury (and they'd have to move the trial to Frederick County for that to happen), a lawyer who pushed that line might well persuade me.

In 1969 I was accidentally caught up in a race riot, I know first-hand how frightening it can be to be the target of a mob.

Big Mike said...

And I think your noxious gases are an indicator that you need to brush your teeth more often.

Earnest Prole said...

I’m sure there are plenty like you who would line up to acquit, just like in the O.J. Simpson case.

PS: Your wife told me it’s “Little Mike” if you know what I mean (and I think you do).

JamesB.BKK said...

"Hey, hey mama, said the way you move,
Gonna make you sweat, gonna make you groove."
ca. 1969