Bell vs. Edison: How ‘hello’ came into being

Thomas Edison

 By Aishwarya Nag Choudhury

When we pick up the phone and say ‘Hello’, seldom do we think of where the word came from and why is it that we most commonly say ‘hello’ instead of anything else. Even when we speak in vernacular, on receiving the phone we first expect to hear a ‘Hello’. So here’s the story of hello: where did it come from? Why is it used? Who coined the term?

A popular hoax on the internet and WhatsApp claims that ‘Hello’ was the name of Graham Bell’s wife. While it is true that Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, but at the same time it is equally true that he never used the word hello. Bell’s girlfriend was Maple Hubbard, whom he later married. The greeting was coined by Thomas Alva Edison.

 The telephone was patented in 1877.

Interestingly the term did not even exist at Bell’s time. The first call he made after the invention of the telephone was to his assistant and said, “Come here, I want to see you.” He preferred the word ‘Ahoy’ instead.

Edison got credit for the term hello but too vaguely, until Allen Koenigsberg, a classics professor having an interest in phonographs, looked into the case.

Koenigsberg’s five year long search led him to an unpublished letter unraveling the secret of the word “hello.” In the letter addressed to T.B.A David, president of the Central District and Printing Telegraph Company in Pittsburgh, Edison wrote “Friend David, I do not think we shall need a call bell as “Hello!” can be heard 10 to 20 feet away.” At this time, Edison thought of the utilization of the phone as a business device. David replied saying, “What do you think Edison!”

Alexander Graham Bell
Alexander Graham Bell

As Edison was proposing his greeting, rival Bell was trying to popularize ‘Ahoy’ as the greeting word for his device. However, ‘Hello’ trumped ‘Ahoy’ and became the first standard greeting, as Edison equipped telephone exchanges all over United States and operating manuals all over the world adopted it.

The first feisty competition ‘hello’ faced was ‘What is wanted?’ but that too didn’t succeed as by 1880, ‘Hello’ had emerged triumphant once again.

More than being a word, the term was a social liberator. It cut across borders and transformed the 19th century world in a few days.  “The phone overnight cut right through the 19th-century etiquette that you don’t speak to anyone unless you’ve been introduced,” Mr. Koenigsberg said.

Etymologically, there are many theories to the word. Some say it is a contradiction of archaic English “whole be thou” while other sources suggest it comes from the phrase ‘Hail thou’ as in translations of the bible. Another interpretation claims that the word came from ‘hola’ which means to stop and pay attention.