Thursday, March 25, 2010

Is "Hey" the New "Hi?"

Is HEY the new HI? Most adults do not hey someone because their mother, grandmother, or teacher corrected them if they said hey, saying “hey is rude” or “hay is for horses.” It used to be that addressing someone as "Hey, you" was an insult. Then in the late 90s, hey replaced ‘sup (meaning what’s up) in teenage slang. Hey as a greeting also showed up in 90s sitcoms like Friends, Seinfeld, and Sex and the City. Linguists tell us that when slang makes its way into the mainstream, it does one of two things. The new word or usage is either accepted widely into common usage, or it disappears altogether.

If hey replaces hi, it won’t be the first time that Americans have switched overnight to a new greeting. Just 150 years ago, Americans used "Good morning," "Good afternoon," "Good evening." "Good day" and "Good night" were typically used as parting phrases, not as greetings. Technology caused masses of Americans to switch to "hello" in a short period of time. Back in 1840, the English used "hallo" to mean “look out," or "watch out.” The words "holla" or "hollo
," a shout to attract attention go back to 1588, and are probably from "hola" (Spanish), "haloo" (Thai), "allo" (Russian), "hallo" (German). The English word morphed into hello with the invention of the telephone. Alexander Graham Bell wanted people to answer the phone with "ahoy," but Thomas A. Edison won out with "hello." Early telephone operators were even known as "hello-girls."

Hi became popular in the Roaring Twenties. Americans embraced new art, new music, new inventions, new fashion, and new slang. Hello remained the standard for telephone etiquette, but Americans, borrowing from jazz lyrics, began to hi each other. By the 1940s hi, and in some regions hiya, had replaced hello as the American salutation. According to Etymology Online hi is attributed to a Kansas Native American in 1862. Did he really mean "how," a Sioux greeting that dates back to 1817?

Hey is a much older English word (1225) meaning “look out” or “watch out,” probably borrowed from "eho" (Roman), "eia" (Greek), or "hei" (German). Again, musical lyrics from Fats Waller (Hey, hey, hey, yes, yes!) and Lionel Hampton (Hey Baba Ree Bop) show that hey was floating around in the jazz and blues culture before it became a greeting. The youth culture seized on hey in the 50s and 60s in song lyrics ("Hey, Baby," "Hey, Paula," "He
y, Jude") and as the counter-culture greeting "Hey, Man!" Two people -- a woman at a wedding and my plumber -- both greeted me recently with "Hey, Girl!" I don’t know if that’s a feminist issue or the case of someone not remembering my name.

I won't be saying hey, but I’m not so keen on hi or hello either. I wish we said Namaste (Hindu: My soul salutes the God within you), or Tashi Delay (Tibetan: Congratulations, you are alive!). Maybe the Australians, Israelis, and Hawaiians have the best idea, one word that means both hello and goodbye . . . G’day! Shalom! Aloha!

Image from Getty Images


Mary Jane McKinney is the creator and owner of LLC, publisher of grammar, style, and proofreading exercises that use sentences from literature.

She is a former high school English teacher and dedicated grammarian whose column Plain English appears in several Texas newspapers. LLC, P.O. Box
299, Christoval, TX 76935,, 325-896-2479.


Anonymous said...


Awesome post!

Anonymous said...

We have been stationed/restationed in the western states. "hey" has been widely used.
I know that I say "hey you, how are you doing". I thought that it was being taken as a hello and how are you. Apparently not! It was meant in that context.

Annie Rizzuto Urbanik said...

No worries, plenty of folks use it to mean "hello, how are you?" in that context these days — myself included! Where are you originally from? Where are you stationed?