The Multiple Meanings of “Hail”

By Mark Nichol

When listing hail as one of the words used to describe precipitation recently, I thought about the other definitions of the word.

Hail is also used as an interjection to acclaim (“Hail to the chief!”) or salute (“Hail, fellow well met!”) someone, though it’s an archaic usage rarely applied anymore. This meaning stems from the Old Norse word heill, used for the same purpose but derived from that word’s original meaning, “healthy.” The homophone hale, rarely used outside of the expression “hale and hearty,” carries a connotation of good health persisting into old age. (The archaic salutation wassail, with a second syllable sharing the same etymology, stems from an Old Norse exhortation to be well; modern usage refers to a hot alcoholic drink served from a bowl at a Christmas celebration, or to revelry in general.)

The verb hail means not only “acclaim” but also “greet” or “summon.” It’s rarely used in the sense of greeting, but the expression “hail a taxi” (or “cab”), referring to summoning a vehicle for hire, is common. (The rare verb hale, meaning “drag” or “pull” in the sense of drawing a horse’s reins or a weapon, or to haul a net or an anchor, is cognate with haul and is distantly related to hail in the sense of “call.”) Meanwhile, the Catholic devotional salutation “Hail, Mary” inspired the colorful expression “Hail Mary pass” or “Hail Mary play” to describe a desperate gambit in football.

One who hails is a hailer, though this term is all but unknown except in the British English term loud-hailer, the name of a device also known as a megaphone or a bullhorn. In maritime usage, sailors are said to hail one another as their vessels pass each other, identifying themselves and passing news; in earlier times, they would be said to speak each other. Also, to stay within hail or within hailing distance is to remain close enough to be heard.

A related usage from the nautical sense is to say that someone hails from somewhere, meaning that the person is a native or a resident of a place.

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2 Responses to “The Multiple Meanings of “Hail””

  • Curtis Manges

    Instead of “hale and hearty,” shouldn’t that be ‘hale and hardy?’

    Maybe I’ve just inspired another column.

  • Roberta B.

    A more accurate description of the “Hail, Mary” pass is that when someone is desperate, they pray, and “Hail, Mary” probably is the most well known Catholic devotional prayer (rather than salutation). So, that would describe any move (sports, business, etc.) made in desperation and said with a prayer.

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