Hey You!

By Maeve Maddox

Puleen Patel wonders about the appropriateness of hey as a greeting:

I see most people online and offline address each other more and more by saying “Hey David” and so on. Is this correct? Is this a new thing? I always remembered addressing (and being addressed) as “Hi David” or “Hi Puleen”.

When I was in school, many years ago, my English teachers objected to both hi and hey as rude utterances. However, both have been in the language for a very long time.

Most dictionaries define hey as “an exclamation to attract attention.” Ditto for hi.

Hey is often used as a nonsense word in song lyrics, as in the chorus of Simon and Garfunkel’s Mrs. Robinson. There’s a Jennifer Love Hewitt song called Hey Everybody.

Earlier still, Shakespeare used hey in the refrain of a song in Much Ado About Nothing:

. . . be you blithe and bonny;
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into. Hey nonny, nonny.

Hey and hi can’t claim to have an etymology like a “real” word. Both seem to derive from the sound of a grunt, like Roman eho, Greek eia, and German hei.

The OED notes that used as “a word of greeting,” hi is chiefly North American. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the first recorded use (1862) of hi as a greeting was to the speech of a Kansas Indian.

This use of hi by an Indian brings to mind the “how!” so often heard in old cowboy movies. Again, the OEtyD:

how: Native American greeting, Siouxan (cf. Dakota hao, Omaha hau); first recorded 1817 in Eng, but noted early 17c. by Fr. missionary Jean de Brebeuf among Hurons as an expression of approval (1636).

As to which to use as an informal greeting, it’s a personal choice. I read a comment by someone who prefers hey to hi because “it sounds more casual.” To some speakers, however, hi sounds friendly, but hey sounds rude.

I wonder what my English teachers would have said to the notion that anything could be more casual than hi.

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15 Responses to “Hey You!”

  • Brad K.

    I remember the Andy Griffith Show, and Gomer Pyle, USMC, with Jim Nabors. Nabor’s “Gomer Pyle” and others in the two related shows used the “Hey!” greeting, and when discussing mutual acquaintances would offer, “Tell Aunt Bee that Gomer says ‘Hey!'”

    Hi, I think, is often part of a greeting. “Hey,” might be more frequently the beginning of a conversation. Hey, then, would be not just an utterance to grab attention, but be just the start of an intended exchange of pleasantries and renewing of acquaintance.

    I find the “How are you?” or “how are you doing?” as a greeting soured, quickly. Yes, it came from management class, and yes, the intent was to manage image – to create an impression that managers and supervisors cared about the worker. The indifference that has attached to the phrase has rendered it mildly offensive – why ask a question, when the asker and askee both understand no real answer is expected or welcomed.

    I prefer “Good afternoon”, “Good morning,” and “Hello”. If I notice someone distressed, I may well ask “How are you doing?” or “What is wrong?” – and I will persist until I get a thoughtful answer, or at least let the person know I am inquiring of their health and happiness, and not tossing off a rote greeting line.

    Enjoy the day!

  • Karla

    Around here (Texas) “Hey” seems to be more common. Kind of like “Hey, there you are! Good to see you!” but shortened to just “Hey!” I started saying “Hey” when my husband brought home one of his Japanese coworkers. When I said, “Hi!” he looked at me funny and then I realized I’d just said “Yes!” to him in Japanese. :-/

  • Renee

    English teacher weighing in…
    I use this as a greeting all the time in person. Maybe it’s a southern thing, but saying “Hey” is very natural. However, one of my pet peeves is to be addressed this way in written communication. I prefer to use proper names and not send an email to “Hey…”

    Thanks for another thought-provoking post!

  • Frank Elliott

    “Hey,” as a vocal greeting, is indeed a “southern thing” (to quote #3 renee) And it has been so for years. It’s right up there with “y’all.”

    I’m surprised that Maddox either did not realize this, or did not mention it in the discussion.

    Regardless, given its pervasive use down here, it follows that “hey” would be used in e-mails and other informal forms of writing.

    Side note: “Hey” as an utterance of surprise, used to drive one of my Yankee relatives nuts. Everytime it came out of my mouth, he’d remind me that “Hay is for horses.”

  • Carol

    Hey is used more in the south than the north. When we first moved to NC in ’62 someone would say Hey to me & I would say what? I had just moved from MI so I wasn’t use to the southern way. Hey is just another way to say Hi. Now that I live in FL if you’re in a group you have to add ya’all & if you’re including everyone & want to make it plural you have to say all ya’all. :O) There are different slangs all of the US, it’s completely different in HI, but we’re getting to where we all understand it. I start emails with Hey all the time, doesn’t seem to bother anyone.

  • Cora

    As an English speaker living in England, I think Hey is rude. Whenever I hear it used by adults on an otherwise excellent US series such as Flash Forward, it grates with me.
    It always sounds to me like it should be followed by a slightly aggressive statement.
    What’s wrong with hello?

  • Neil Kosterman

    Hey, a bit of humor in my past. As a teenager in Racine Wisconsin, the best burger joint in town was Kewpee’s – still there. My brother and I were there once and overheard someone call out to the waitress, “Hey,” in an effort to get her attention. She snapped around and responded with, “We don’t serve ‘hay’ here.” 🙂 P.S. This would have been around 1960.

  • Amy

    “Hey” always makes me think of of _To Kill a Mockingbird_, when Scout is walking past Mrs. Dubose’s house and says, “Hey, Miss Dubose,” and Mrs. Dubose scolds her with a, “Don’t you say ‘hey’ to me, you ugly girl! You say, ‘good afternooon, Mrs. Dubose.'”

    Personally, I like to use “hey” as an informal greeting when I pass colleagues I’m friends with in the hall. I use a more formal greeting (good morning or good afternoon) for people I don’t know well.

  • Cat Woods

    This exchange makes me giggle. I agree with the poster who stated that “hey” seems to indicate the start of a conversation, while “hi” is a passing pleasantry.

    As to “hello”? The only written exchange I’ve read in the last few years with the more formal greeting is in “Go, dogs, go!”

    I don’t know that I can recall a verbal “hello”.

  • Deborah

    According to my North Carolina relatives—“Hey” is used the same way as “Hello,” and is considered polite yet friendly.
    “Hey, Ms. Maddox. How are you today?”

    Here in Texas, I hear “hey” used as an interjection or a question.
    “Hey! That guy just ran the red light.”
    “Hey? Did that guy just run the red light?”

  • Maeve

    Well, I grew up in the South, although not the deep South, and I can’t recall any use of “hey” that didn’t get the “hay is for horses” response from teachers and other adults I was around.

  • Justin

    In my opinion, you are all overthinking this.

    Is it a generational thing? I’m 24 and my peers use hi, hey, and hello interchangeably. Although I’ve heard that hi and hey are less formal than other greetings like hello and good morning, I don’t think anyone my age would ever be offended, even in a formal situation, if you said, “Hey, Tim!” when you saw Tim for the first time that morning.

    It’s honestly strange to me that there would even be a debate about this.

    Maybe it’s because I’m a simpleton from Iowa.

    Or extremely cynical.

  • Eric C

    for people 30 and under, hey rules the day. Hi feels stilted and impersonal.

  • Julia

    I often use “Hey Up!” when talking or IM’ing other Northen English people 😉

  • Jon

    In recent years Wallace and Gromit have exposed audiences worldwide to the quintessentially northern “‘eyup“.

    If we’re bringing the many northern English dialects into this, there’s a rich, rich seam of colloquialism and variation to be mined.

    …An apostrophe within double quotes? Am I in the right thread? 🙂

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