Friday, May 01, 2015

`What's It Look Like?'

A university librarian has asked me to investigate the origins of Hi! Both of us prefer Hello or Good morning but Hi! (the exclamation point is mandatory – there’s something enthusiastically American about the word, as there is with “OK!”) slips in as involuntarily as a good burp. I shared with her my first awareness of the word as a rather peculiar sound. In 1973, while staying at a youth hostel in ChambĂ©ry, France, I would greet French students with an all-American Hi! They found this endlessly amusing and would go around saying Hi! Hi! Hi! in high-pitched cartoon voices, always dropping the “h” so it sounded like I! I! I!, which seemed appropriately egocentric. 

A more recent popularization of the word is utterly repellent. People, often strangers, begin emails not with “Dear Patrick” or even just “Patrick” but with “Hi Patrick,” omitting the comma separating the noun of direct address from the rest of the sentence. This is marginal literacy masking as informality and friendliness. 

About the word’s origins the OED is pedantically evasive, saying only that it is “a parallel form to hey.” Through the late nineteenth century, hi served as “an exclamation used to call attention,” much like hey. Its first citation as “a word of greeting. colloq. (chiefly N. Amer.),” dates from 1862, from a book by Miriam Davis Colt, Went to Kansas; Being a Thrilling Account of an Ill-fated Expedition to that Fairy Land, and its Sad Results; Together with a Sketch of the Life of the Author.  Colt writes: “When out on the prairie, up galloped an Indian on his pony with his saluting ‘hi!’” Later citations are drawn from This Side of Paradise (1920), Catcher in the Rye (1951) and a late work by P.G. Wodehouse, Pearls, Girls and Monty Bodkin (1972). 

The word is deeply colloquial and informal. It’s no surprise that early usages in writing are rare. One of our best novelists, the late Thomas Berger, was a master of dialogue, with an ear acute and highly selective. By that I mean, for a good writer of fiction, dialogue is never a transcription of daily, mundane conversation. That would be insufferably tedious.

In a 1975 letter to his friend Zulfikar Ghose, Berger writes: “Genuine dialogue doesn’t sound genuine when put in the written language. One must make it synthetic so that it sounds authentic.” I’m rereading one of my favorite Berger novels, Sneaky People (1975). The unlikely hero is Ralph Sandifer, a sex-obsessed fifteen-year-old who earns money in the summer mowing lawns. Here’s an exchange from the first chapter:
“As Ralph reached the other side of the street from the lot and waited for a Mack truck to rumble by, Leo came out of the Greek’s, cleaning his teeth with his tongue. 

“`Hi, Leo,’ Ralph said. 

“Hi, Ralph,’ said Leo [whose lawn Ralph has just mowed], immediately going into his pants pocket. `I figure you’re ready to bite me for four bits [fifty cents]. You got the edges nice, right?’ He forked over a half dollar so worn you could hardly see the eagle.” 

“Ralph whipped the clippers from his back pocket and snapped them open and shut. `You bet.’” 

“Leo had turn and was looking back. Behind them a string-haired girl wearing a slack halter had come out of the Greek’s. She had a faceful of pimples and wore glasses. 

“She said: `Hi, Ralph.’ 


“`What are you doing, cutting grass?’ 

“`What’s it look like?’ riposted Ralph, and pushed the mower over the curb and into the street.” 

It all rings true to an American ear. The exchange is at once highly stylized and utterly faithful to mid-century, Middle-American vernacular. Ralph has never “riposted” even once in his life.

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