[Viewpoint] ‘Hello’ is not what it used to beA newly released book bears the obscure title “The Etymologicon.” What sounds like the name of a missing religious icon is in fact a guide to the historical linguistic derivation of thousands of English words and phrases. Each has a story that illustrates a vivid scene. Imagine the actor waiting in the wings, desperately trying to learn his lines on the night of the performance. He’s “winging” it. Picture the looks on the faces of Basque natives when they saw the strange bizar (beards) of invading Spanish soldiers. If you bought what you thought was a bagged piglet in a medieval English market and got home to find it was actually a young dog, you had been sold a “pup.”
“The Etymologicon” also relates that the word “hello” was not the regular greeting between English people before the telephone came along. Good day, good morning, good night and other variations on the bidding of spending your time well were. That changed after Thomas Edison misheard “hullo” in his first telephonic exchange. Old movies in which English doctors were deferentially greeted by respectful patients showed that hello had not always been the way to initiate contact. But this book’s reminder of how the more formal greetings in England ceded ground to the casual, two-syllable hello prompted, in tandem with an event I witnessed in Korea, a pang of nostalgia and jealousy.
In a hospital I had to visit, the receptionists and auxiliary medical staff lined up in front of the main counter at 8:30 a.m. They placed one palm over another on their rib cage and bowed to me and the three elderly ladies waiting to be seen. The staff then chorused the refrains of the senior auxiliary. They repeated “We will do our best,” “Welcome to our hospital,” and concluded in unison with the most honorific form of greeting in Korean. It was a performance I appreciated, even if my fellow patients barely took their eyes off the entertainment news on the reception area’s TVs.
“Hello” has its variants in other languages, some of which resonate with striking verbal similarity: hola in Spanish and halla in Swedish are two. But these coincide in the same way omma in Korean and ma ma in Chinese resemble mom and mum in English. Regardless of their etymologies, they sound like instinctive sonorous formulations. Swedish, however, still retains a different greeting for the elderly. And though hola seems as casual as hello, I have been present at everyday situations in Spain in which strangers kept to a formal linguistic code when they first greeted and later took their leave of each other.
Living abroad, the only occasions upon which I receive more formalized English greetings are certain e-mails of uncertain provenance with subject headers like “GOOD DAY MY GOOD FRIEND,” to which, ironically, I never respond. Of course, such expressions as “Good morning” and “How do you do?” still pertain, but they are becoming social archaisms. A professor acquaintance in England told me recently how some of the students were now calling him “mate” - and they were not Australian. “How’s it going?” “Alright, pal” and the rest are how you address friends.
Only the oddly camp or partly deranged would advocate the poor once again doffing their caps to sirs in top hats, but the universal application of immediately intimate greetings does not appear to be resulting in the state of harmonious social ease some might believe. It is counterproductive and slightly misleading to inform Koreans learning English that they do not have to worry about speech levels and can go right ahead and say “hi” to 25-year-olds or 75-year-olds alike.
One day, I exited a Korean department store with a newcomer friend. I persuaded him that on reaching the doors we were obliged by custom to turn around and bow back into the store while saying farewell in Korean. We both turned to complete the solemn ritual. The cosmetics assistants looked on with polite bemusement when my friend lowered his neck in the direction of a stack of lipstick. It was fun at his expense rather than a sardonic point about the culture.
By the way, the word “sardonic” originally referred to the people of Sardinia, who were considered unfriendly by those who had not gotten to know them properly.
*The writer is a translator and textbook writer living in Changwon, South Gyeongsang.
By NB Armstrong