Ahoy, a signal word originally used to call a ship, was once a standard way to greet others and was Alexander Graham Bell’s suggested greeting for answering the telephone.
Ahoy is a signal word used to call to a ship or boat. The word stems from the Middle English cry “Hoy!”, a greeting derived from the Dutch “Hoi”.
Seafarers used the word ‘ahoy’ in song well before the word’s first recorded use in print. The term was first referenced as a new nautical term in the 1751 novel The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle by Tobias Smollett. In its early usage, ‘ahoy’ was used as both an exclamation and a way to get someone’s attention. By 1813, ‘ahoy’ was a widely used word in the English language, and the first half of the 19th Century brought the term (or a close variant) to neighboring languages. ‘Ahoy’ soon became a popular greeting outside of nautical situations.
While ‘ahoy’ fell out of the popular English lexicon for a time, the word later rose from obscurity as the sport of sailing grew in popularity. ‘Ahoy’ can still be heard used as a greeting, a warning, or to say farewell.
While ‘hello’ is the standard English language greeting today, the word has only been around since 1827. In its early days, ‘hello’ was used to attract attention or express surprise, as in, “Well, hello, what have we here?”
‘Hello’ didn’t become the standard greeting as we know it today until the arrival of the telephone. Thomas Edison urged people to say ‘hello’ when answering his phone.
Alexander Graham Bell, the Scottish-born innovator credited with patenting the first commercial telephone, originally suggested ‘Ahoy-hoy’ as the standard greeting when answering the telephone. ‘Ahoy’ had been around at least 100 years longer than ‘hello’, and its nautical origins along with common usage as a greeting made it a strong candidate.
The de facto telephone greeting we know and use today was solidified after the first telephone books sanctioned ‘hello’ as the official greeting in their authoritative How To... sections. ‘Hello’ quickly eclipsed ‘ahoy’, but Bell insisted upon answering the phone with ‘ahoy’ for the rest of his life.
In pop culture, The Simpsons’ Mr. Burns also answers the telephone as Mr. Bell intended: