Telephones, Thomas Edison, And Top 40 Tunes

I’m at a payphone trying to call home, all of my change I spent on you.  –“Payphone” by Maroon 5

When technology changes everyday life, language responds with new words to help us navigate new experiences. Thus, the history of the telephone and the greeting “hello” are intertwined.

Telephone derives from the Greek tele- “afar” + phone “voice, sound”. Imagine how much brainpower it took to make the transmission of voices over wire possible. Still, when the first telephone was unveiled in 1876, one question remained: what should people say when answering?

There were two schools of thought, led by two technology titans. Alexander Graham Bell advocated “ahoy”, while Thomas Edison thought “hello” was the answer.

“Ahoy” is a nautical term derived from the Dutch hoi, which means “hi”. “Hello” is a modern word, dating back only to the early 1800s when people shouted it to get attention. Etymological cousins include hallo, holla, hala, and hola.

The lines are scrambled on why “hello” won out over “ahoy”. According to one source, the first phone book ever published told people to answer with a “firm and cheery hulloa”. Subsequent phone books echoed this instruction, and early adopters complied. Soon, telephone operators were called “hello girls”.

When technology changes everyday life, pop songwriters respond. So we find references to the telephone, in the service of lovers and lonely hearts, in legions of Top 40 tunes:

“Telephone” (Lady Gaga): Stop callin’, stop callin’, I don’t wanna talk any more…

“Sylvia’s Mother” (Doctor Hook): Sylvia’s mother said Sylvia’s busy, too busy to come to the phone…

“867-5309/Jenny” (Tommy Tutone): Jenny, don’t change your number…

“Telephone Line” (Electric Light Orchestra): I’d tell you everything, if you’d pick up that telephone…

“Hanging On The Telephone” (Blondie): If you don’t answer, I’ll just ring it off the wall…

And then there’s Todd Rundgren’s 1972 smash, “Hello It’s Me”. Edison would have loved the title, of course. And it’s a good thing his phone greeting prevailed. Somehow “Ahoy It’s Me” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.


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