When you consider the concept of inventions, anything from the wheel to the iPod might spring to mind. You’re probably less likely to think of a word; particularly not one you may take so completely for granted as the word of greeting, ‘hello’.
Yet it is believed to be just that – the invention of Thomas Edison. He is credited with advocating ‘hello’ as the best way of answering the telephone, from where it gradually moved into the general use it has today.
It may be more accurate to say, he adapted and perfected a pre-existing invention (much as he did with the electric light bulb).
Before Edison’s influence, you might have exclaimed ‘hullo!’ in surprise, hailed a ferryman with a resounding ‘hollo’, or even led a hunting party to their quarry by crying ‘halloo’ (if you were in the habit of doing these things).
Of course, words frequently enter the language through utter invention. Shakespeare coined an incredible 2000 or so new words, including ‘jaded’, ‘bedroom’ and ‘obscene’; plus numerous phrases we now take for granted, such as ‘vanish into thin air’, ‘flesh and blood’ and ‘to be cruel to be kind’.
Edison’s choice of answering utterance was based on its clarity – and for that sentiment we naturally approve. And that’s not the only call for us to owe him a debt of gratitude. Had it been left to Alexander Graham Bell, our typical salutation could well be ‘ahoy’.