Monday, August 4, 2014

Hey there ...

(From a column published Oct. 4, 1998, in the Boston Globe's Focus section. Not re-researched since, so caveat lector!)

In the heyday of the casual greeting

'Hey," a colleague said as we met in the hallway last week, "how come everyone says 'Hey' now instead of 'Hi'?"

He may have been overstating the case -- hi, hello, and how are ya are by no means dying out -- but clearly, hey has been extending its reach. And I wondered how the greeting hey was related to the other hey that's been spreading in written English, a kind of folksy aside to the reader adopted in the past few decades. Is this one new usage, or two ways to make hey?

Not that there's anything new about hey itself; its first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is dated 1225, centuries ahead of its near-twin hi. And hey has done yeoman work through the centuries, filling out all those extra syllables in old songs and poems (with a hey nonny nonny) and in 20th-century political chants (Hey, hey, LBJ . . .). In the 16th century came a dance called Hey-diddle-diddle (presumably accompanied by a cat playing the fiddle). Hey serves as a yell of alarm (Hey, bring my car back!) and a magician's exclamation (Hey presto!).

But our latest variants are comparatively recent. Random House's slang dictionary (1997) notes the aside-to-the-listener use of hey ("Used affectedly for emphasis within a sentence, esp. after but," it says); its samples run from 1974 ("But hey, that's the kind of guy I am") to 1994 (a Dewar's Scotch ad). HarperCollins's slang guide also notes the usage, calling it "Increasingly . . . placative or apologetic."

This hey seems like a descendant of the 20th-century hey we get in popular songs, from "Hey there, you with the stars in your eyes" to "Hey hey, we're the Monkees." It's a friendly, casual form of address, implying a certain intimacy and saying, at the same time, "We're making a little joke here -- don't take us too seriously."

Hey as a solo salutation has much of the same flavor. It's more cordial, less neutral, than hi or hello --not a greeting to someone you don't know or don't like. I'd also bet -- a small amount, at least -- that it's a guy thing, which may be why my colleague hears it more than I do. (That could change fast, though -- a friend reports that his toddler daughter is using hey, not hi.) You probably wouldn't greet your grandmother with hey, and some bosses would surely consider it too casual. But you never know: After all, it was a very big boss in a very fancy office who recently uttered the hey heard 'round the world: "Oh, hey, Monica . . . come on in."