Saying 'Hi' rooted in history, routines and cultures

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, November 23, 2005

Well, if ever I needed proof that one my columns really got it right, it came in the massive response to last week's on "Hi!-society" in Cochrane.

Everywhere I turned at coffee shops, church, the post office, and along the street, folks were calling out to me or tapping me on the shoulder and saying, "Hi, Warren." They wanted me to know they'd read the column and agreed that we really do live in what must be one of the friendliest communities on earth.

Calgary coffee companion Helen Diemert went even further, referring to our town by e-mail as "Idyllica, Alberta." She added, "We in the city love to visit your town, whatever the season."

For word sleuths, here's a brief history of "hi":

Did you know that the original spelling of "hi" was "hy" back in 1475, when it was a variation of the modern attention-getting word "hey"? That's the view of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the final word on such matters.

But its use as a North American colloquial greeting is much more recent, according to the OED. Its first literary citation appears in 1862 in a passage where a member of an American First Nation gallops up on a pony "with his saluting 'hi!'" (This suggests that a case can be made for tracing our current usage of "hi" to the Sioux and Omaha word "hao".)

I've regarded the greetings "hi" and "hello" as synonymous, and till recently mistakenly thought the former was just a short way of saying the latter. Not so, says According to this valuable Web resource, "hello" as a greeting didn't appear till 1883, when it became entrenched as part of telephone culture. (It beat out Alexander Graham Bell's suggestion of "Ahoy!")

An especially inspiring response to last week's column came from a writer/editor formerly of Cochrane. David Forbes celebrates greetings in general as bridge-builders to community:

AS I THOUGHT about how people can be friendly as easily as just saying "Hi!" to others they pass on the street, I remembered my Granny (mother's mother) teaching that through example. As she walked along the streets of the ancient city of Stirling in Scotland, she would often acknowledge someone coming towards her with simply "Nice morning" or "Hello" or "Cloudy day" or even "Dreadful weather." I once asked her who the person was, and she said she didn't know them but that it was just polite to greet someone as you met.

Years later, while walking to work early in the morning, I often passed a man headed in the opposite direction. Realizing this was going to become an almost daily event, I decided I would do what my granny had done. The next morning, with frost in the air, as the man was heading down the hill and I was going up the hill, I said "Good morning." No sooner had I acknowledged him, he acknowledged me. Wow! My next challenge was to see if he would respond to various comments from time to time as we passed each other at a steady clip. Rain, shine, snow, wind, thunder and lightning. The days he wasn't on the street, I missed seeing him.

This must have gone on for a year, until the day before I left the city. That morning, I interrupted the man's fast-paced walk and told him how much I had looked forward to and appreciated his response each day. We spoke for a couple of minutes about what work each other did, and then went on our way never to cross paths again.

—David Forbes, Medicine Hat

I WAS GREETED in languages other than English, as well, during the past week.

Quite a few folks from Morley greeted me with "åba wathtech", the Stoney Nakoda way of saying "hello" (literally, "good day" and pronounced OM-ba wah-THTITCH).

Cochrane coffee companion Leesha Terpsma, soon to be leaving for Senegal, Africa, where she will be volunteering as a doula (birthing assistant), greeted us with "Salaam Allikoum" ("Peace be to you").

From Mumbai, India, Raj Patwardhan greeted me with "Namaste," a word that paints a picture of bowing of oneself to the other. He also sent me a poem he'd written about saying "Hi":

What's so special about a Hi
on a greeting's vote it's high
be it east, west, north or south
it's easy on everyone's mouth.

So, how about the rest of you? Are there other greetings that are "easy on everyone's mouth" that we haven't mentioned yet? Your good word just might go a long way toward making the whole world a lot friendlier place.


© 2005 Warren Harbeck

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