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Author Topic: The Problem with “Hello!” and “Whatever!”  (Read 212 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: May 09, 2017, 01:36:08 AM »

Something terrible has befallen the words “hello” and “whatever,” and I think we must decide now whether we should still save them or allow them to slide into total linguistic ruin. “Hello!”, once the quintessentially courteous greeting, has become the ultimate public putdown, as when a TV talk show host bludgeons a guest with it to mean, “What you say is nonsense so you must be out of your mind!” On the other hand, the pronoun “whatever,” in better days a respectable word for “come what may,” is now the slashing verbal equivalent of a sneer, as when your teenage son or daughter summarily dismisses your advice with it to mean, “Go to hell with whatever you want!” So recklessly does our overcommunicative society now use “Hello!” and “Whatever!” that they have become the hallmarks of rudeness.


But it would be such a pity if get rid of  “Hello!” for all time and throw it to the gutter. Many shades better than the juvenile sounding “Hi!”, “Hello!” has been a faithful handmaiden to the telecommunications age since the latter’s infancy. Now about 125 years old, “Hello!” was actually first pressed into service on August 15, 1877 by the great inventor Thomas Edison as a salutation on the telephone. The recently invented device was getting popular and users desperately wanted a quick, more pleasant way to start conversations and answer calls with it. Both were still baffling tasks because the technology was yet so new and so strange, and it did not help that calls had to be initiated on open lines that were left permanently connected.

Of course, it was not Edison who had invented the telephone but his archrival, Alexander Graham Bell, but Edison (who had invented the incandescent lamp) was not happy with the salutation Bell had coined for its use: “Ahoy, ahoy!” Bell was supposed to have adapted the greeting from the Gaelic of his native Scotland or from the nautical “Ahoy.” But the greeting (close in meaning to the Filipino’s shrill and impolite “Psst! Psst!”) was a flop because people just didn’t like its sound. In its place, Edison endorsed the use of “hello” in a letter to the president of the company that operated the telephone service. This suggestion was accepted, “Hello!” caught the people’s fancy, and it displaced “Ahoy, ahoy!” for keeps.

We must understand that “Hello!” was not just one of those spur-of-the-moment coinages that get into the language. People in those early days had actually experimented with many telephone salutations: “Who are you?” “What is wanted?” “Are you there?” “Are you ready to talk?” But they all sounded crude, impolite. Bell’s “Ahoy, ahoy!” was even cruder. Even by today’s standards, Edison’s “Hello!” would have won hands down over all of them. The word itself is believed to have come from “Halloo,” a greeting used in the 1870s to call ferryboat operators to service; the ferryboat operators in turn signified their arrival or presence with it. In any case, less than a decade after its conscription into the telephone service, “Hello!” became a fairly popular addition to American English.

“Hello!” eventually spilled over into other social usage, of course, particularly to express surprise when people met unexpectedly, but this extended usage did not detract from its pleasantness and civility. Its fall into disrepute began only in recent years, when American TV show anchors and talk show hosts started using it to strongly disagree with something said by someone on or off camera. A number of their Philippine counterparts quickly adopted this affectation; the female host of a late-night TV talk show, for instance, has this habit of breezily hollering “Hello! Ano na naman ba ’yan?”, which roughly translates to “What nonsense are you saying this time?” This not only disparages the poor guest but, I am afraid, also insults the intelligence of the viewers. How much more pleasant she would be if she spared “Hello!” and used the classic “I beg your pardon?” or “Can you explain that to me?” instead!

The problem with “Whatever!” is an aggravation that’s only a trifle less serious than that of “Hello!” The first time my daughter used it a few years ago in talking back to me, violent accent on the first syllable, my first impulse was to clamp her mouth and scrub it with brush and soapwater (she is so much more civilized now, but like some of my younger office staff, she still uses the word to tar things she hates). While I can tolerate such use of “whatever,” admittedly with a heavy heart, I still think that the word does not deserve such shabby treatment. “Do whatever you want!” would be an improvement. Of course, I would much prefer the wistful meaning of “whatever”–“Come what may”–as in that haunting duet by the ill-fated Satine and her lover Christian in Baz Luhrmann’s film Moulin Rouge sometime ago. (circa 2003-2004)

This essay first appeared in the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times and subsequently appeared as Chapter 46 in the Usage and Style section of his book English Plain and Simple: No-Nonsense Ways to Learn Today’s Global Language, © 2004 by Jose A. Carillo, © by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.
« Last Edit: May 09, 2017, 02:24:45 AM by Joe Carillo » Logged

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