July 23, 2019

"Unlike Full Internet People, who grew up with the internet and never questioned its social potential, Semis tend to assume..."

"... that conveying the entire social meaning of a message is better accomplished by a voice conversation, whether in person or (to the barely disguised panic of Full Internet People) in a phone call.... But the phone itself was once a profoundly disruptive technology for the English language (and presumably for other languages, too, though this book’s focus is English). As [Gretchen] McCulloch explains [in 'Because Internet/Understand the New Rules of Language'], simply settling on a standard greeting made for acute confusion. What initially started as a battle between 'ahoy' and 'hello' (another contender was 'what is wanted?' — my new phone greeting) was eventually resolved in favor of 'hello'; the word has the same origins as 'holler,' and was used at the time as a call for attention. 'Hello' later became an acceptable greeting for all kinds of interactions, but it took a while for it to lose its whiff of impertinence. Now 'hello' is not just polite but even a bit formal, compared with a nonchalant 'hi!' or 'hey!'"

From the NYT book review "Why Has Language Changed So Much So Fast? 'Because Internet.'"

I don't think this looks like a particularly astute book (or review) but I'm blogging this because I thought it was funny to refer to people as "Semis" — I doubt if that will catch on — and because it got me looking up "Hello" in the Oxford English Dictionary. The adoption of "hello" as the word for answering the phone is traced back to 1877, when Thomas Edison wrote in a letter, "I do not think we shall need a call bell as Hello! can be heard 10 to 20 feet away. What you think?"

But "hello" — the word used to attract attention — is traced back to 1826 (and I love this quote):
1826 Norwich (Conn.) Courier 18 Oct. 4 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.
The next quote also amuses me:
1833 Sketches & Eccentricities Col. David Crockett (new ed.) xiii. 168 I seed a white man walking off with my plate. I says, ‘Hello, mister, bring back my plate.’
The OED includes this modern-day example:
2003 R. Gervais & S. Merchant Office: Scripts 2nd Ser. Episode 1. 47 Sorry. Can I have a—hello—can I have a quick word with everyone?
Here's the full Davy Crockett context:

Screen Shot 2019-07-23 at 8.20.18 AM

Now, that's language!

68 comments:

wwww said...

"What initially started as a battle between 'ahoy' and 'hello' (another contender was 'what is wanted?' — my new phone greeting)"

"What is wanted?" That is fabulous. The phone was debated as a tremendous invasion of privacy. Phone calls could invade the privacy of the household without warning.

One of the results of the internet is that people have come to expect socialization with strangers. I find the results interesting. I have developed a hypothesis that humans are designed to socialize in-person and when socialization behaviours are applied on-line it can result in strange and dysfunctional human behaviour and outcomes. (Example: Althouse threads going off the rails.)

Amy said...

I have noticed a huge change in regard to phone contact in a work context. People do not just pick up the phone and call, they make appts to do so, or ask permission to call. When I say "just call anytime" they seem stunned and somewhat uncomfortable with that concept (which is natural to me). Sometimes people will say "I could not put it all in an email, so I went 'old school' and called you."
Or they even want to convey business communications through text, which I am not comfortable with.
I have an assistant who will do anything to avoid making phone calls (which are sometimes necessary). One of my colleagues needs to hire an assistant and cannot find one who is comfortable with phone contact (which is essential for the position).
Strange times (for an old semi like me).

Rob said...

I truly enjoyed that quotation. If I didn’t I wish I may be shot.

EDH said...

Now 'hello' is not just polite but even a bit formal, compared with a nonchalant 'hi!' or 'hey!'

What about the other end of the conversation?

Why do most characters just hang up the phone without saying goodbye? [In movies and TV.]

I think it's for dramatic effect and pacing as well as time. Here's an example of an awkward good-bye used as comedy.

Calling Darth Vader

Original Mike said...

" 'what is wanted?' — my new phone greeting) "

Mine has become, "What is this about?"

Seeing Red said...

Hello is much better than the English “Oy” in trying to get someone’s attention.

MikeR said...

Ah - it was a waiter. Wonderful.

Seeing Red said...

Speak. Lolol

Temujin said...

I just can't help thinking you need to write a book about language. Get it out of your system. You love it and seem to be a student of it. Maybe language use in the US. There are so many variations of English spoken in this country. And dialects. Accents. Even within regions. Southerners in Georgia and South Carolina do not sound like Tennesseans or Virginians. And Florida? Talk about a melting pot. Wisconsinites have a different Midwestern sound than do Michiganders and Northern Ohioans. Meanwhile, Ohioans in Cincinnati sound different than those in Cleveland.

And then you have a Colorado sound. California. Texas. Louisiana. Midwestern Nebraska vs the eastern Midwest. Hell...you and Meade would need to travel the US for a year. And your blog would probably have to cease. We'd all be out here jonesin'.

buwaya said...

I prefer to communicate in person, as even a telephone does not convey presence.

And if at all possible a whiteboard, as words are too often inadequate.

Michael K said...

When I get a call from an unfamiliar number, my greeting is "Who is this?" The robocall giveaway is the silence that lasts a few seconds until someone picks up. I am gone by then.

One day I got about 10 or 12 calls from a 510 area code with a message that my Social Security account had been frozen. I hung up on them but finally my wife pushed the buttons to answer and waited. She talked to the person finally and she was in Gambia.

Caligula said...

There's obviously a need for a phone app to simulate you (and your voice) when you don't want to talk to the caller. And perhaps another to place the voice call using whatever text you've input to it with the ability to improvise, and not just deliver the message.

When comes The Internet of Things, the apps will talk to each other.

Leland said...

Besides messing up history; I think the book could provide better examples of changes in language. I do agree about using the phone to convey meaning rather than text. People rarely convey emotion or feeling in their messages, so it is assumed. Emojis are meant to help, but they don't. Voice does a much better job. But what do I know, I'm only Semi.

cubanbob said...

One day I got about 10 or 12 calls from a 510 area code with a message that my Social Security account had been frozen. I hung up on them but finally my wife pushed the buttons to answer and waited. She talked to the person finally and she was in Gambia."

It's the principal reason I never answer calls from numbers I don't recognize. Worse are the scams that clone a number similar to yours as often they fool you into answering the phone but the brief wait is the giveaway it's a fraud of some kind.

Fernandistein said...

"Is this the party to whom I am speaking?"

Oso Negro said...

@Buwaya - I cannot remember your background, are you an engineer? I also find the best communication to be in person, with a whiteboard at hand, in case one needs to jump up and do a quick sketch to illustrate a concept.

tcrosse said...

The Brits render it as "hallo".

Original Mike said...

Blogger buwaya said..."I prefer to communicate in person, as even a telephone does not convey presence."

Me too. I will travel to a place to talk to someone, rather than call (assuming they're local, of course).

traditionalguy said...

Davy was just being his Scots Irish self. He could really give Trump a rival on the Twitter wars if he was around today.

The Cracker Emcee Refulgent said...


“I have noticed a huge change in regard to phone contact in a work context.”

Humor is a huge part of gaining cooperation and divining kindred spirits in the workplace. But, to be done correctly, it needs to be tailored to the individual with an understanding of boundaries and pain points. Try doing that deftly via email, especially at the beginning of a relationship. I “go and see” or at least “call and talk” whenever possible. It usually ends up being much quicker than email.

henry said...

"semis" has the obesity epidemic gone so far?

I too prefer phone calls to text. It is more efficient. What I do not like are sales calls to make appointments for people I've never heard of to sell consulting. 'What is "X" good at"? "Everything." "That is logically equivalent to nothing. Do not call again."

EDH said...

"You Rang?"

tim maguire said...

He wishes to be shot a lot, a wish he eventually got.

But how does one steal a full plate from under your nose without you even noticing, then eat the whole goose and giving back an empty plate after you catch them and make them return the plate?

tim maguire said...

(another contender was 'what is wanted?' — my new phone greeting)

Why not just "What do you want!" (yes, exclamation point, not question mark)

Some of my favorites:

Simple: Kramer: "Go!"
Narcissistic: Barney Stinson: "Go for Barney!"
Odd but catchy: Alan Partridge: "Aha!"

Michael K said...

What email and the internet will do is to destroy history that requires records be kept.

Hillary Clinton, and no doubt Obama, have erased records that reflect unfavorably on them. They have all learned from Nixon.

Craig Howard said...

Another semi here.

Though I text a lot and think it's a great way to carry on an extended, casual, asynchronous conversation, talking on the phone is a much better way to communicate.

I've experienced many, many misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and downright anger over texts that didn't accurately express the emotion intended behind the words.

Maybe emojis can alleviate some of that, but I already know how to talk. And it works.

P.S. "Hello" as a phone greeting became so popular that even the French adopted it in the form of "Allo" and use it to this day. But only on the phone!

wholelottasplainin' said...

Let's not forget Groucho's use of the word to reflect surprise, as in:

"Hello! I must be going!!"

traditionalguy said...

The 4 second delay means a computer is directing the call to a person. But they usually come on with a hello and a wait. So my response is “ you called me. Who are you?”

rehajm said...

At the General Electric Company they adopted the convention of answering the phone using your last name. Welch! Supposedly saves time.

BarrySanders20 said...

Thinks I, my phone greeting needs improved.

Says I 'Speak to me!' while in my homestead in response to numbers not known.

Says I 'First name, Last Name' while in my office in response to calls directly taken.

Ann Althouse said...

"Mine has become, "What is this about?""

Mine has become "Is everything okay?" (meaning, I hope a phone call doesn't mean something's wrong).

rhhardin said...

Socrates insists that the telephone is basic and writing is a perversion.

Of course he got that backwards.

The telegraph is basic, and amounts to writing.

rhhardin said...

I'm on the third time through Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, a book I typed into the computer in the 1980s and recently converted to a 40 wpm morse code .mp3 to listen to on bike commutes.

The impression is not of listening to an audio book but to listening to the book being written.

Howard said...

you had me at hello

rhhardin said...

At work the phone answer convention was your last name. Otherwise they'd have to ask - maybe an office mate picked up the phone. So it saves one transaction.

At home the convention is don't answer. In fact the phone has had the ringer turned off since 1990. Telemarketers.

Howard said...

Blogger Michael K said... What email and the internet will do is to destroy history that requires records be kept. Hillary Clinton, and no doubt Obama, have erased records that reflect unfavorably on them. They have all learned from Nixon.

Is there a foundation that investigates potential cures for terminal constipation? I'm sure all your fans would contribute to the cause.

John henry said...

I knew about ahoy vs hello. Never knew about what is wanted

Down south here people sometimes answer "que quieres?" or "Hola que quieres? " (no comma)

Which means, roughly, "waddaya want" still feels q bit harsh to my ears. But not to anyone else.

We still have hardware, autoparts and other stores where everything is behind the counter and the standard greeting of the counterman is "que quieres?"

John Henry

sinz52 said...

After becoming weary of telemarketers,

my new (and current) phone greeting is simply:

"Yes?"

Howard said...

"Pronto" always throws them off

stevew said...

"Yell-ow" is what my father's phone greeting sounded like. I've adopted it as my own when answering calls from family.

Not sure if I'm a 'semi' or not. I only answer calls from numbers I recognize. When I have a question for someone I tend to text. I've never been one to use the telephone for conversation. I think it still annoys my mother-in-law that I don't join her weekly call with her daughter, my wife.

Ann Althouse said...

""Yell-ow" is what my father's phone greeting sounded like. I've adopted it as my own when answering calls from family."

My father said "Heddow." I think that's nice. My grandmother said "HEH-low" with a really upbeat inflection.

Narr said...

Texty McTexterson here! That's too long for a phone greeting, so on the rare occasions I answer an unknown number I have developed a nice low deadpan non-accented "hel-lo" that I hope conveys a complete disinterest in whatever it is the caller has to say. Most of the conversations are short-- "No"-- and often I just hang up.

At work we answered with the department name.

Narr
"No ma'am, Special Collections does not collect library fines"

Quaestor said...

"Yell-ow" is what my father's phone greeting sounded like. I've adopted it as my own when answering calls from family.

I once had an overly excited girlfriend (she mused at length about our married life over breakfast after our first bedding) who called me at least twice each day while I was at work. I took to answering her calls with a cheery Ochre! which was followed by her Huh?

It's a shade of Yell-owI, said I.

tommyesq said...

I have dealt with attorneys who refuse to speak by phone because no written record is created. Makes it incredibly difficult to resolve disputes or settle cases.

BTW, that abysmal paragraph from the NYT book review can only be explained by "those that can, write; those that cannot, review..."

Narr said...

BTW, Davy Crockett is a myth. The man himself preferred, and signed as, "David Crockett."

Narr
My neck of the woods

Quaestor said...

In the Sherlock Holmes stories, the detective often says Hello, what's this? or some variant, as an interjection to call Watson's attention to a newly found clue.

I believe the word derives from an ancient hunting term yet preserved in traditional foxhunting in Ireland, Halloo! sometimes given as view halloo!. It means I see the fox! and you're supposed to gesture with your cap in that direction. This fairly consistent with David Crockett's (contemporary sources say he disliked being called Davey) usage in that cited text, which I interpret as meaning look here or look at this rather than as a greeting, per se.

Given the contemporary use of hello by Arthur Conan Doyle and the introduction of routine use of telephones, I think hello as an opening for a telephonic conversation rather than ahoy is odd.

The cheese-eating surrender simians have the best solution — (insert your name here), ici. The caller's expected response is the same, which solves the obvious problem created by hello: An argument between two Scotsmen.

mikeski said...

Find a greeting in a language you don't expect telemarketers to know.

A Japanese phone greeting is mo-shi-mo-shi; in the default Tokyo accent, it's pronounced more like "mow-she-mowsh".

MadTownGuy said...

My departed bro-in-law used to get calls where the caller said something like "Kay Nada." I figured, correctly, that it was the Spanish phrase "¿QuiĆ©n habla?" So when I was there and one of those calls came in , I got on the phone and asked what number they were calling. It was a wrong number so I politely asked her to check with the person and not call this number any more.

In my work in insurance claims, Spanish speakers pretty much answered my calls with ¿Bueno?

Dust Bunny Queen said...

My Aunt who was raised in Mexico from young girl through college would almost always answer the phone by saying "Pronto" and occasionally "Bueno"

Not in the US of course where "Hello" is the common answer, but when we lived in Mexico Pronto.

I thought Pronto was cool. Like "what do you want? SPEAK!!!"

Dust Bunny Queen said...

One day I got about 10 or 12 calls from a 510 area code with a message that my Social Security account had been frozen. I hung up on them but finally my wife pushed the buttons to answer and waited. She talked to the person finally and she was in Gambia.

I enjoy tormenting the people who tell me that my Windows is expiring or they are from Microsoft tech service. I can usually get them to eventually get really angry and hang up on me :-)

We have two numbers that ring in on one line. Our personal number, which my husband had also used for his previous plumbing/handyman type business and the business line from the pump and well company that we purchased about a decade ago. We needed to keep the well company number as it had a long history in the area with many clients who would be using that number to call.

So....I end up answering most of the calls because the can be from clients with cell phones with area codes from out of the area. From clients calling from their businesses in other parts of the State and nearby states. Even VOIP calls can be legit for us. So...I answer the GD phone when it rings.

If I could reach through the lines and strangled some of those callers to death...I would gladly do so.

Quaestor said...

I enjoy tormenting the people who tell me that my Windows is expiring or they are from Microsoft tech service.

I've earned a considerable sum correcting the damage done when people actually believe they've been called by Mircosoft.

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

The cheese-eating surrender simians have the best solution...

I must clarify that it is only the Swiss who routinely employ the excellent French telephone etiquette. Thanks to endemic social decay one is much more like to hear an abrupt and vaguely hostile Quoi?

Tom T. said...

It amuses me to imagine our hostess picking up the phone and barking, "Go! for Althouse!"

bagoh20 said...

Most of my communications are for business. I don't converse long distance for pleasure much at all. I prefer email first, text second, because you both have a record, and it's in thread form. Very convenient for sharing information that matters. If you use the phone, you end up sending an email later anyway to convey something important like a phone number, address, link, photo, or document. The phone call becomes just a waste of time.

PM said...

My standard phone greeting, thanks to robocalls and cold calls, is a deadpan: "Go ahead, please."

Bruce Hayden said...

“And then you have a Colorado sound.”

Maybe too close to it, but what is a Colorado sound? Growing up there everyone thought that we were from the Midwest, or some such (my mother immigrated to CO from Chicago).

Bruce Hayden said...

I don’t answer most calls. On y iPhone, I have a canned message that tells the caller to text me with their name and business, and I will call them back. So far, I have had two people indignantly respond asking who was I, and why was I texting them. In both cases, the original caller had faked their telephone number as their caller ID, by using the first six digits of my phone number, and adding four random digits. Probably half the time that I text in response to an unknown incoming telephone call, I get a text message indicating that the number I was texting was invalid. Which is fine since I didn’t spend my time talking on the phone to someone who was faking their Caller ID.

Michael K said...

We needed to keep the well company number as it had a long history in the area with many clients who would be using that number to call.

When I was still in practice, I moved my office and had to get a new number. A few years later, we had gotten very busy and needed a new back line. By this time, it was possible to use an old number previously registered so we got the old number to use as a back line. We found it would ring several times a week from patients I hadn't seen in years.

Several years ago, I got a cell phone call from a patient I had operated on for a melanoma. She was calling about another matter and was startled when I answered. She didn't know I had been retired for years. It was nice to hear from her. Melanoma cured.

Michael K said...

Which is fine since I didn’t spend my time talking on the phone to someone who was faking their Caller ID.

Since I moved to Arizona, almost all unfamiliar calls from 949 area code are robocalls.

rehajm said...

Quiz time semis. Was it:

NockaMockaBeeSai?

Wanna-mocka-pee-si?

Bolenockapeaceye?


We only needed to invent the internet to find out.

narciso said...

De parte (who is calling) a quien desea (who do you want to speak to) are the greetings that come to mind,

Narr said...

Accent and dialect are fascinating. A friend (ex-colleague at the liberry) grew up in Norfolk VA, has been in the army and three different grad programs (south and midwest), and has almost no accent I can detect. He had to do some research in a British archive and says they were surprised when he showed up that he was white--based on where he called from and from his speech on the phone they thought he was probably African-American!

My older brother did his basic at Ft Campbell about 1966. When he was done he had a nickname the family had never used ("Chuck") and a Yankee way of saying "I". A sharp, short, nasal "Eye" he picked up there from the other guys ("gice").

Narr
Among other things

rcocean said...

I've adopted "Hoy, Hoy". Just to be different. When i first started working in the 80's we had a lot of middle-aged ex-military types who would answer the phone with a curt "Jones" or "Macmillan".

rcocean said...

in my office its broken down into 3 groups. The oldsters - like me - want to talk. The middle-aged want to email. And youngsters want to text. It gets quite frustrating when some 20 something wants to type for 10 minutes about something can be solved by phone in half the time.

rcocean said...

Two good songs:

Hello Central, give me no man's land; and

Hello central, give me Dr. Jazz.

ColoradoJim said...

Nice Crockett quote there! The language reminds me a bit of Twain’s writings so I went ahead and downloaded that Sketches book for my next read.

Nichevo said...

rcocean said...
I've adopted "Hoy, Hoy". Just to be different. When i first started working in the 80's we had a lot of middle-aged ex-military types who would answer the phone with a curt "Jones" or "Macmillan".

7/23/19, 6:34 PM


I liked that idea, but in this age of cold calls and spams and social engineering, to offer your name to a stranger seems unwise.