The Meanings and Origins of Common Greetings and Pleasantries

By Mark Nichol

Greetings and pleasantries, often uttered without sincerity or conviction as rote statements, are often also used without appreciation of their literal meanings. Here are the connotations and derivations of common comments.

This French term, uttered by someone taking leave of others, is sometimes used by English speakers; it’s a contraction of “A dieu vous commant” (meaning “I commend you to God”).

The Spanish equivalent of “adieu” is also employed in English.

This short version of “I hope you fare well” (fare here means “do”) was originally said as a parting comment to a person leaving the company of one or more other people; the departing person would traditionally respond “Good-bye.” Now, it is sometimes used in distinction with “Good-bye,” which has a connotation of finality, whereas “Farewell” implies that the parties will meet again.

Good Day and Good Night
These abbreviated versions of “I wish you a good day/night” are almost invariably said when a person parts company with one or more others.

Good Morning, Good Afternoon, and Good Evening
Unlike “Good day” and “Good night,” these expressions are usually uttered as greetings at the appropriate time of day or night, though they are sometimes said in parting.

This comment, given when one party or another departs, is a contraction of “God be with ye”; it’s often spelled goodbye.

The root word of this outdated but occasionally employed comment, an abbreviation of “I give you greetings,” originally meant “to come in contact with.”

The greeting hello likely derives from the Old High German call hala (also hola), meaning “fetch,” which was originally used to hail the operator of a ferryboat and expanded as general usage for getting someone’s attention and then as a greeting. A great variety of spellings, probably as a result of various pronunciations, persisted well into the twentieth century. Hello became more popular toward the end of the 1800s as it prevailed as the dominant form of greeting when calling someone on a telephone. Holler (meaning “a shout”), and possibly hullabaloo (meaning “a commotion”), are related.

“Hi,” used as an informal alternative to “Hello,” is unrelated to that word, though it also derives from a word used to attract attention: hey. It originally was uttered as an exclamation of surprise.

How Do You Do?
This pleasantry, often responded to with an identical greeting but sometimes returned with something like, “I am well. And how are you?” is nearly obsolete but survives in the contraction “Howdy,” which is used without affectation in some regions of the United States, though some people use it as a self-conscious colloquialism.

Thank You
This pleasantry, short for “I thank you” but still considered formal, is often replaced by “Thanks,” which derives from a different comment, “I give you thanks.” The colloquial “Thanks a lot” is often uttered sarcastically, so it should be avoided in writing; the same is true of “Thanks a million.” An even more casual alternative is “Thanx.” (Thank, by the way, is cognate with think.)

The two parts of this greeting are misleading in their apparent etymological origins: The first half does not have anything to do with well, and the second half is only tangentially related to come. The first part of the Old English word wilcuma means “will” and the second part means “guest,” not “come”; the sentiment is that it was a host’s will that a guest would arrive.

You’re Welcome
This response to “Thank you” and its variants, a slight contraction of “You are welcome,” literally means that one should feel entitled to whatever cordiality or service one has received from the person who gives the response.

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2 Responses to “The Meanings and Origins of Common Greetings and Pleasantries”

  • venqax

    Don’t forget ‘sup as in, “Dooood, ‘sup”. I’m sure it’s roots are ancient and venerable. I think maybe even Shakespeare used it or am I thinking of Snoop Dog? I believe Dickens employs it:

    “‘Well!’ said Mr. Trabb, in a hey dog ‘sup kind of way. ‘How are you, and what can I do for you?'” Great Expectations! CH. IXX

  • Kathy

    And here in Australia we say “Gidday.”

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