I hate it, hate it, hate it when a certain kind of joke is explained to me. The manner of joke of which I speak is the joke which has been there in clear sight, sometimes for years, and I simply failed to recognize it. Having a humor grenade go off in my face after thinking I was safe around it is a terrible shock. There’s a Smothers Brothers joke which sailed over my head as a child, but you’d think in later years…well, when I do my series on “Is That Still Funny?” I can cover these things.
The fine old joke which leapt out at me on the Interwebs was the explanation that “Chips Ahoy” sandwich cookies were meant to be understood as a play on the phrase “Ship Ahoy!” For years I have observed both these phrases in the wild and never once thought of connecting them.
See, I was looking at all these telephone postcards headed with “Hello”, and knowing the fine old story about Alexander Graham Bell…no, not the one about shouting to Mr. Watson and realizing his invention worked. The one about how Bell felt his invention ought to be used. All his life, I am told, he answered the telephone with “Ahoy!” The word, I am told, dropped from common usage for a while, but was revived when more and more people took up sailing as a pastime. Bell was also known for his nautical interests, so it was a natural usage. (Later in life, he worked on hydrofoil vessels and for a while operated the world’s fastest boat. The telephone was not his WHOLE life.)
Anyway, “ahoy” derives from a general lookout yell “Hoy!” which sailors added an a to the front of to make it more noticeable. (We like to add an a to things when we go a-wording. I can’t think of any examples except maybe a-tisket, a-tasket. Maybe we have given up that…no. I refuse to look up the word “ahem” and see if it’s the same sort of thing. I…come to think of it, I have seen “Hem!” used as an interjection, so it could….)
Let’s walk to another rabbit hole. The word “hello” derives from an exclamation of surprise, spelled, variously “Hullo” and “Hallo”, which is related to “Hola” which, and I swear I read this online, so it must be true, derives from the French for “Whoa there”, which they tell me is “Ho La”, la being the word for “there” and…okay, you in the back,. We are also not making jokes about French h…yes, keep that word to yourself, too.
Anyway, the use as a greeting, especially over the telephone, was promoted by no less a media influencer than Thomas Edison. Tom was interested in all sorts of new inventions, and was marketing his own version of the telephone when he wrote a letter using the word, and spelling it “Hello”. (Theories that his hearing, always bad, simply made him mishear Hallo or Hullo will have to go unconfirmed.)
I am not clear on why Tom’s expression should have superseded Alexander’s, but it did. When telephone operators were invented, some people called them “Hello Girls”, and when songs about the new invention spread around the world, through the use of Tom’s phonograph, the most popular of these was “The Telephone Song”, which opens “Hello, My Baby, Hello, My Honey.” (Maybe that’s it. Ahoy, with it’s accent on the second syllable, was harder to fit into songs.)
And that concludes our words for today, except for the words I want to have with that heckler who broke in during our discussion of hola and…by the way, I just checked, and “ahem” is apparently a preferred spelling of the little cough sound people use to get someone’s attention. Abd I promise that is the last a-word we will mention today.