A student suddenly asked what ‘hello’ means. I said, “It doesn’t mean anything. It’s just the word we say when we meet someone or answer the phone.” He said, “Does it mean the same as ‘hell’?”. I said “Why would it?”. He said, “Because it’s got most of the same letters.” I said, “So basically when we answer the phone, we’re saying ‘Go to hell!’?” (possibly, if we’ve got caller ID). He said, “A PhD in India said that” and I said, “Well a PhD in India is wrong!”. (I am usually open to the possibility of varieties of English, but that assertion is just plain wrong.)
Later, I checked Dictionary.com, which has a chain of variants and derivations dating back 850 years and spanning telephones, fox hunts and ships. ‘Hello’ dates from 1865-70, and its use in relation to the telephone is attributed to Thomas Edison; Alexander Graham Bell’s own suggestion was ‘ahoy!’. Until the 1950s the alternative spelling ‘hullo’ was used more in British English. It is a ‘variant of hallo’, which dates from 1560-70, which was ‘used to call or answer someone, or to incite dogs in hunting’. It has the alternative spellings ‘halloa, halloo, hallow, hillo, hilloa, hullo, hulloo’ and is ‘Middle French variant of hollo, itself variant of earlier holla < Middle French hola, equivalent to ho ahoy + la there’.
Dictionary.com’s entry is spelled ‘holla’ (alternative spelling ‘hollo’), which dates from 1500-50 and is ‘an informal greeting … an informal exclamation of enthusiasm, joy, etc … used especially during a hunt’. (It does not mention it as part of the entry for ‘holla’, but there is the alternative spelling ‘holler’, which is ‘1690-1700, Americanism’.)
‘Ahoy’ is ‘Nautical’ and dates from 1745-1755. It is a ‘variant of hoy’, which dates from 1350-1400 and is ‘Middle English, variant of hey’, which in turn dates from ‘1150-1200’ and is ‘Middle English hei’, which is as far as Dicitionary.com takes the chain.
‘Hey’ is now decidedly informal in modern English. Alongside the railway line near the next station along is a billboard for the new Ikea store at Marsden Park. It reads ‘We’re moving in. Drop round and say hej [hello]’ (the square brackets are on the billboard). There are similar greetings in many other western European languages.
But that’s not all. I’m sure you’ve thought of at least some of ha, aha, ha-ha, hee, hee-hee, tee-hee, hi, ho, ho-ho, ho-ho-ho, ho-hum, hem, ahem, haw, hem and haw, hum and hmmm (and I’m sure there’s more).
And of course I have to link to this song.