Hey, if you don’t mind, listen to the first 20 seconds or so of this conversation between National Public Radio’s Ari Shapiro and Gene Demby:
If you didn’t care to listen, or experienced technical difficulties, here’s the exchange in which I’m interested:
Shapiro: Hey Gene.
Demby: Hey Ari.
Ari and Gene are partaking of a meaning for hey that’s not recognized by the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED defines the word as “A call to attract attention; also, an exclamation expressing exultation, incitement, surprise, etc.; sometimes used in the burden of a song with no definite meaning; sometimes as an interrogative.” This is the hey of the first word of this post, of “Hey nonny nonny,” “Hey, you,” “Hey, what’s the big idea?,” Fat Albert’s “Hey, hey, hey,” fictional sidekick Hank Kingsley’s “Hey now!,” and numerous song titles and lyrics: “Hey There” (from The Pajama Game), “Hey Ya” (Outkast), “My, my, hey, hey” (Neil Young), “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” (Leonard Cohen), and “Hey! You! Get off of my cloud!” (Mick Jagger).
It’s a somewhat raucous word, and I was amused to find out that the familiar grown-up retort to kids’ use of it was invented by Jonathan Swift in Polite Conversation in 1738:
Neverout: Hay, madam, did you call me!
Miss: Hay why hay is for horses.
The Ari-Gene hey, by contrast, is basically a synonym for hi-- a friendly greeting. Until fairly recently, it was was confined to the American South. The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) cites a 1944 survey as reporting that hey is “the common term of familiar salutation of children and young people in most of the South; hello seems to them either semiformal or archaic. On many northern and western campuses the term is hi.” Since the 1940s, Auburn University, in Alabama, has observed an annual “Hey Day,” when faculty, students, and staff are supposed to greet each other with the word. In the 1960s, one of the North Carolinian Gomer Pyle’s catchphrases was “Tell him Gomer says ‘Hey’!” The regional lines were still drawn in 1971 -- DARE quotes a letter written that year: “In the North, what is hi to us, is hey in a Southerner’s vocabulary” -- and I would say a good couple of decades beyond.
But not anymore. Shapiro is 37 years old and grew up in Portland, Ore. I haven’t been able to determine Demby’s age and home town, but his NPR page suggests he is in his 30s and a Philadelphian. My sense is that among people under about 40 from all regions, hey for some time has been at least as popular as hi, and probably more so, and now seems completely unremarkable. You certainly can’t go more than a half hour or so on NPR before confronting it.
It even shows up in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, in exchange between Han Solo and a character called Maz Kanata (not a spoiler):
Maz: Han Solo!
Han: Hey, Maz.
Hey Name is also making a move to overtake Hi Name (which itself overtook Dear Name) in email greetings. Behold three items from my inbox:
What explains the popularity of hey? Some other Southernisms have lately gone wide, including visit as an intransitive verb meaning “chat” (“We had a chance to sit down together and visit”), wait on to mean “wait for,” and emphasizing the first syllable in Thanksgiving, insurance, and umbrella. But I’m thinking that’s coincidental. More important is the marked informality of hey--informality being in vogue at the moment. And it provides a useful function, being a combination of the original hey, which demands the listener’s attention, and hi, which is merely a greeting.
I’m well over 40, but I just checked my “Sent” e-mail box and it turns out I’m a heavy hey greeter myself. So hey, it could take over the world.