It’s pure instinct. When our phones ring—after checking caller ID, of course—we pick up and say, “Hello?”
But if Alexander Graham Bell had his way, we would be saying “Ahoy.”
The word “ahoy” has been around for at least 100 years longer than “hello.” It came from the Dutch word “hoi,” also a greeting. According to NPR, Bell was so certain it would catch on as the perfect phone conversation starter that he used it for the rest of his life.
Luckily, we don’t have to talk like pirates every time we pick up the phone. You can thank Thomas Edison for that. He was the one who proposed “hello” as the proper greeting, to the chagrin of his rival Bell. At the time, telephones were thought of like modern walkie-talkies, where the line would stay permanently open so businesses could communicate with each other whenever they pleased. The problem was letting the one side know when the other wanted to talk. In a letter to the president of the Central District and Printing Telegraph Company in Pittsburgh, who was about to bring the telephone to that city, Edison suggested saying “Hello!” would be the best way to get someone’s attention.
He was right. “Hello” was noted as the official greeting in many of the first phone books. Official manuals of the first telephone exchanges (Ever see movies where switchboard operators connected two callers? That’s a telephone exchange) gave “hello” equal importance.
Of course, what comes after “hello” is what really actually matters. If you can’t think up a memorable conversation starter, Edison would have done all that hard work for nothing.