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.