by Heinz Insu Fenkl
"Hello" is such a characteristic American greeting that, back when I was a child in Korea, it was our name for Americans. It was, after all, the first sound out of the GIsí mouths when they saw anyone. Now that I am a professor with twenty years of academic inquiry behind me, I turn again to the question of why Americans say "Hello" and not "Good day" or its many counterparts -- "Bon jour," "Guten Tag," "Buon giorno," "Gíday" -- to greet each other; and I do this because my inquiry into the origins of symbols and folk meanings seems constantly to skirt around the profound meanings of the utterly mundane.
In Korea, one says "Anyonghaseyo" (literally: "Are you in peace?"); in China, "Ni hao" (literally: "Are you well?"). What one says as a greeting has understandable meaning in most cultures; the speaker knows what the word or phrase refers to. Over the years, Iíve occasionally surveyed my college classes in creative writing and literature and discovered that not a single one of the thousands of students in those classes knew what "Hello" actually refers to. When I turn the question around and ask what "Good-bye" means, there will generally be at least one student in a class who can explain that it derives from "God be with you" (which makes it quite similar to the Spanish "Adios" and the French "Adieu"). The historical transformation of "God" into "good," as in the Puritan appellations "Goodman" for "Man of God" seem to be well understood. (If you doubt whether "be with you" can be condensed into "bye" [be with ye --> be wí ye --> bíye], just keep in mind that in England, "Worchester" is pronounced "Wooster" and the name "Feathershanhaw" is pronounced "Fanshaw.") But the reference of "Hello" remains a mystery to people who use it many times a day -- even if itís mostly to answer the telephone.
Several years ago, there was a movement afoot in a Bible Belt town to do away with "Hello" because it had the word "Hell" in it. Some high-minded person decided that the good Christian thing to do would be not only to omit the reference to Hell, but to undo its ungodly damage by replacing "Hello" with "Heaven-O." Obviously, this movement did not catch on (one even doubts the authenticity of the report since it appeared on one of those infotainment shows like Hard Copy), but I bother to mention this bit of trivia because it illustrates the fact that people actually do pause to wonder about the meaning of the greeting and they do actually attempt to analyze it logically. One of the basic principles in linguistic analysis is to take words apart into their basic elements and inquire about their meaning in their original language(s). Whoever divided "Hello" into "Hell" and "O" wasnít far off; he or she was just forgot to consider the importance of examining the wordís non-English origins.
"Hello" was not a word invented by Thomas Edison or Alexander Bell for answering the telephone, as some people believe. Many etymologists are quick to dismiss "Hello" as a variant of "Hallo," "Hullo," and "Halloo" -- all words used for hailing or greeting in the past. While their argument is partially correct, since the variation follows a predictable evolution, they fail to inquire into the odd and unique spelling of the American "Hello." When you take time to peel away the overlapping layers of meaning, the word has a fascinating history, and it turns out to be a prime example of a pragmatic summarizing symbol that reflects the complexity of the American unconscious.
Since Hell and Heaven are usually considered diametric opposites, it is necessary to explicate the two concepts together. In most cultures (both Eastern and Western) Heaven, or the heavens, signify the source of light, which is associated with the divine. If you look at cosmologies and creation myths, you will generally find that the world is created through some union or interaction of the sky and the earth. Since humans live on the earth, that plane is generally more mundane than that of heaven, which is the realm of the mysterious sun, moon, stars, and planets -- cosmic bodies whose motions seem to indicate a precise order. Heaven is therefore the place in which the divine abides; it becomes associated with gods, angels, immortals, the Heavenly Emperor. In Chinese cosmology, the great Jade Emperor resides in the Heavenly Kingdom; likewise, the God of the Bible has His throne in Heaven and the world after the second coming is said to be Heaven on Earth.
Heaven is the source of sunlight and rain, and so, particularly in agricultural societies, it has profound life-positive associations with the sources of fertility, and therefore, life itself. That makes Heaven the source of good. When the heavens turn "bad" by bringing drought, foul weather, or long periods of darkness, the blame usually rests on some failing in the human realm. Even today this notion remains deeply rooted in some cultures. For example, the Chinese government is always quite sensitive to the effect of natural disasters on public opinion because, in the past, such things as flood, drought, and earthquake were signs that the emperor had lost the Mandate of Heaven. At such times, dissident religious movements had the potential to overthrow the emperor. (And this is precisely why, in this era of natural disasters, the Chinese government has set out to systematically destroy the Falun Gong movement, which they characterize as a religious cult disguised as a martial arts fad.)
China and the United States are generally good examples of how various notions of Heaven become compiled differently, and yet into rather similar symbols. Since Heaven is the source of light in general, both during the day and at night, it represents life-positive qualities, goodness, and order to nearly all cultures, whether their origin be agrarian, sea-faring, or nomadic: the vault of the heavens provides the template of cosmic order that permits the fundamental abilities of navigation and time-keeping that result in societiesí ability to plant crops, harvest, trade, and find their way across deserts and oceans. Whether the merged social traditions are Communism, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism, or whether they are democratic Capitalism, Christianity, and Judaism, the end results put the concept of Heaven in a very similar position (and this despite the American division of church and state or the Chinese governmentís official policy of atheism).
Heaven as the Edenic afterlife paradise likewise exists in both East and West. Buddhists (though it may seem to contradict their religious philosophy) have a Western Paradise, and Christians, of course, have their Heaven often depicted as full of classical Greek architecture and fluffy clouds. Though descriptions of Heaven are as particular as Danteís descriptions of the many-circled Inferno in his Divine Comedy, most people take Heaven for granted. After all, whether we are talking about stereotyped and mischaracterized Heavens like the American images of "The Happy Hunting Ground" or Valhalla, the various Heavens are all far less interesting than their counterpart Hells.
Since Iím discussing "Hello" as a uniquely American term, itís necessary to look at Hell in its American context, which means examining its Judeo-Christian origins.
The 1611 edition of the King James Bible uses the word "Hell" numerous times, but subsequent versions, even the New King James Bible, tend to replace it with more appropriate approximations of the original Greek or Hebrew terms. If you do your Biblical scholarship, youíll see that the Hebrew Ge-hinnom (Gehanna) and Sheol, as well as the Greek Hades, are all equated with Hell in various translations. This brings up an interesting consideration: Since the translators were attempting to convey meaning, we should look at the references of those Hebrew and Greek words. At the same time, we need to pursue the etymology of the English word "Hell" separately, which means staying closer to the sound value of the word and following its Germanic trajectory. Whatís remarkable is that the routes of inquiry intertwine to form a historical cross section of Hell as both word and concept.
Let me begin with Hades, since its equation with "Hell" makes sense in both meaning and etymology. Hades, from the Greek, literally means "unseen," which explains its use to refer to the nether world of the dead (the "shades") and the presiding god, Hades. Hades happens to be the Greek translation of the Hebrew word Sheol, also meaning "unseen" (which occurs 65 times in the Bible; the original King James version only translates it as "Hell" 31 times). Although the initial referent of the Hebrew and Greek words are the same, it is important to note that while the Greeks had built a complex nether world mythology around the word Hades, the Hebrew Sheol does not share those associations.
Gehanna, another Greek form of a Hebrew word, occurs a dozen times in the New Testament with a meaning that -- at first -- seems to reflect our current notion of Hell. (In fact, Christ uses the term several times in a rather critical context.) Gehanna comes from the Hebrew ge-hinnom, which means "Valley of Hinnom." This valley is probably the most hellish of the Biblical references, since it was there that the old Israelites offered up their children as burnt sacrifices on the altars of Baal. In the Old Testament, the prophet Jeremiah warns that this valley will be called the "Valley of Slaughter" (Jer 7:30-33). The prophecy was fulfilled quite literally in 70 A.D. during the bloody destruction of Jerusalem.
The irony of Gehanna is that, during the time of Christ, it was Jerusalemís garbage dump, quite similar to todayís landfills -- probably full of pits and smoldering flames from burning refuse. For a Jew, who would have been much concerned with proper burial, to be relegated to Gehanna after death would have been a truly hellish fate, but it is certainly not the fiery pit we imagine as the place of eternal damnation. Jonathan Edwards, best known for his Hellfire-and-Damnation imagery in "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" would have been rather disappointed with the original Gehanna.
According to some etymologists, the English word "Hell" comes from the Indo-European root, kel, which means "cover" or "hide" (the K and the aspirated H sounds are related). Because of the fluctuation of vowel sounds, kel is the origin of both "hall" (a covered or sheltered place) and "hell" (a hidden place, related to the unseen Sheol and Hades). In Anglo-Saxon, hel has the same underlying meaning.
But another direct link to the English "Hell" -- particularly considering the German influence on Protestantism -- are the Germanic and Greek hel. This is where things become curious, and this is where the Biblical scholars tend not to tread, because the root meaning of hel is clearly related to light. In Greek, hel is the root for words like Helios (the sun god), and Helen of Troy. Our English "Hellenic," which refers to Greece itself, often called the Land of Light, also has the same root. Hel is a positive root, although the name Helen can also be read as "torch," considering what her presence did to Troy. (Charlotte Brontë, highly underrated in her use of symbolic character names, plays with this light/fire dichotomy in Jane Eyre, in which she calls her most angelic character "Helen Burns." The evil schoolmarms of Lowood constantly warn her that she will burn in Hell, and she dies of a fever in Janeís arms. Note how her name ironically encodes the warning: Helen Burns = Burns en Hel. Brontë obviously didnít mean for Helen to burn in Hell -- the reference is to her luminosity and her afterlife in the realm of Light.)
In Greek mythology, hel also happens to be in the name of Jasonís scorned wife, Helles, in the story of the Golden Fleece (which is often read as an allegory about the sun). If one pursues the Greek associations with the root hel, it is not possible to avoid its connection to the ancient Egyptian her (since the Egyptians used R and L interchangeably); that avenue of inquiry provides some puzzling but rewarding links to light and fire. To name the major one, the Egyptian name for the sun god is Heru, which could also be read Helu, connecting the Egyptian Horus with the Greek Helios (and also to our word "hero").
In the Elder Edda, one of the Ur texts of Teutonic culture, Hel is the goddess of the dead and ruler of the nine hells of Helheim. (Oddly, her home is called Regnvat, which means "wet by rain," but that makes sense if we link her name to fire and fire to the life force -- her realm is a "hidden" one in which the life force has been doused. Hel rules a dark and shadowy underworld more akin to Hades than to the fire-and-brimstone Hell of the Christians. But note how Regnvat also links Hel to the sky, which is the source of both rain and light -- the life-positive forces.) The German word for "Hell" is Hölle, but that relates to so many other words and concepts that I will have to devote another column to it.
So what is a poor, unwitting American to make of the terrible burden that "Hello" seems to carry? Let me quickly list some of the basic readings we can infer from what Iíve discussed above. "Hello" could be the phonetic rendition of:
Hell + O = the burning pit of flames in which the damned suffer for eternity; the O is the pit itself or designates the circles of Hell.
Hel + Lo! = behold light! As in "Lo and behold!"
Hell + Low = an indication that Hell is below as opposed to Heaven above. The "Low" could also refer to morally low.
Hel + O = solar disk. A reference to light and the circle of the sun. This could also be read as a halo of light, associating it with holiness and angels.
Iíve glossed only four of many potential pairings of the syllables that make "Hello," but these should be enough to establish how the word carries meanings that could complement and amplify or entirely contradict each other.
In Hermeneutics, which is the study of how words carry meaning, the endeavor is considered inherently circular and never-ending. Words possess a sort of organic life of their own, and if they have been around for long enough, they carry with them glimpses of all the cultures that used them. Since the political, aesthetic, and religious ideologies of cultures change, words often loop around on themselves and become inverted in meaning, though in the process, they retain echoes of their original intent. These "echoes" are often amplified by associated words.
For example, the contraction (or is it a euphemism?) for "Hello" is "Hi!" This doesnít seem to make sense, but it is perfectly logical if we read "Hello" as "Behold Light!" which would be a reference to Heaven, and thus "high." "ĎLow" also happens to be a contraction of "Hello," but that form is quite rare compared to "Hi!" Note how this contraction into Hi/Low illustrates circular logic.
The most common euphemism for Hell is, strangely enough, "Heck." This does not seem to make sense either, since the L sound has no regular transformation into the K sound. But if one considers that "Heck" is short for Hekate (also spelled Hecate), it makes perfect logical sense. Hekate happens to be the Greek goddess of death, and though she is associated with Hell due to the Greeksí foregrounding of her negative qualities, she is said, in ancient sources like Hesiod, to be the original goddess of the three realms: Heaven, Earth, and Tartarus (a sort of limbo, which is reserved for angels in Judeo-Christian lore). In Theogeny (416), Hesiod writes of Hekate, "In starry heaven she has her place, and the immortal gods greatly respect her." (Hekate, by the way, through her association with the dark of the moon and thus the color black, is also connected with the black Hindu goddess of death, Kali, and also the Christian black Madonna figures.) Once again we find the connection of light and the other world melded together.
In the process of explicating "Hello," Iíve had to illustrate how our various notions of Hell seem both similar and contradictory. The truth is that the contradictions point at a common logic at a higher level. Even if we take the path of the "hidden" as the point of access to ideas of the other world or the afterlife, we eventually arrive at the underlying idea that this world is a realm of light. Antiquarians, anthropologists, and religious scholars are all arguing about these issues, but the recent research into Near Death Experiences (NDEs) suggests that regardless of oneís religious background, one tends to enter the "light at the end of the tunnel" in the other world (those unfortunate enough to have a bad NDE into the burning pit eventually come around as well). Hell-O is Heaven-O. In Tibetan Buddhism, this is well understood in the Bardo Thodol, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which contains explicit instructions to the soul regarding how to navigate among the various illusory "hells" on its way to reincarnation or enlightenment.
So what does it actually mean when one says "Hello?" to answer the telephone? The word itself is incredibly complex, as you have seen, but its function is very pragmatic. We use "Hello" as a sort of sonar ping! to establish the terms of our relationship to that faceless (i.e., "hidden") voice on the other end of the line. The meaning of the word is full of potentials that become activated during the conversation so that it could range across the full spectrum. A good example of this variation is what happens when you get no answer on the other end and your first cheerful "Hello" becomes subsequently darker as you repeat it, "Hello? Hello? Hello? Hello!" ending, perhaps as an expression of great anxiety or as the preface to a threat.
In the end, the symmetry makes perfect logical sense. If "Hello" means "Behold light!" or "Hell below," then saying "God be with you" afterwards could be an affirmation, a compensation, or a statement of sympathy. The interaction in-between is what the circle inscribes, and we time-bound mortals are stuck having to separate greeting and leave-taking. But remember the Tralfamadoran greeting in Kurt Vonnegut Jr.ís Slaughterhouse Five, in which Billy Pilgrim was unstuck in time? It was "Hello Good-bye."