I got a business e-mail the other day (from an American) that started out with a one-word sentence: “Hullo.” The U.S. version, of course, is “hello.” I had always associated hullo with mum, except I sometimes encounter “mum” here, and I’d never seen an American “hullo.” Until now.

Poking around on the web for examples, I almost immediately encountered this quintessentially British quote from the quintessentially British P.G. Wodehouse (the narrator is the possibly even more quintessentially British Bertie Wooster):

“Hullo, Bobbie,” I said. “Hullo, Bertie,” she said. “Hullo, Upjohn,” I said. The correct response to this would have been “Hullo, Wooster”, but he blew up in his lines and merely made a noise like a wolf with its big toe caught in a trap.

Hello (first citation 1827) and hullo (1857) both have the same etymology as the verb holler, according to the OED, as do the older variants hallo (first seen in Dickens, in 1841) and hollo (Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus). Interestingly, an even earlier version is holla, which has recently come back in full force. The most popular definition on Urban Dictionary gives three meanings, the relevant one being, “A word used to acknowledge the presence of a fellow companion.” This example is offered: “Is that mah boy ova there? HOLLAAAAA!”

Generally, hello is indeed generally American and hullo generally British, through Google Ngram Viewer suggests some nuance:

Screen Shot 2014-08-29 at 10.49.53 AMThe decline in hullo use on both sides of the Atlantic suggests that my e-mail correspondent’s use of the word was a one-off–about as likely to catch on as the similarly Wodehousian abbreviation for the thing we used to talk on: ‘phone.





31 thoughts on ““Hullo”

  1. As an Englishwoman, I always use ‘Hello’. I was always under the impression that Hullo, Hello and Hallo were all interchangeable. I think Enid Blyton (famed and prolific children’s author or mid-20th C) always wrote Hallo, but I may be mis-remembering.

    I suspect ‘Holllaaaaa’ maybe more likely derived from the Spanish ‘hola’. My sister and I sometimes say this to each other in a jocular way, too.

  2. Okay, OK, O.K., okay. I always say ‘Hello,’ because ‘Hullo’ sounds so affected coming from an American. And now, thank you so much, Ben, ‘Hello!’ from the Book of Mormon, ‘Hello It’s Me’ by Todd Rundgren, and this song (Hello, it’s me I’ve got something to say) that I don’t know the name of, but I really like it, that one of my kids gave me, from (I think) Ima Robot, are looping in my already crowded head.

  3. I have a few British friends who start emails with “Hello”. I have never seen Hullo!…in fact I’m old enough to remember people starting correspondence with “Dear Arthur”.
    So perhaps it is only very recently I have become aware of the the word and it’s spelling. I have been aware of the Spanish Hola.
    I must say in recent times I do prefer Hello to “Hi” although I am not really able to give a sensible answer why.
    You don’t think this person is having a bit of fun teasing you?

  4. When Tony Blair was in office as Prime Minister, Private Eye magazine satirised him in every edition as a Church of England vicar preaching to his congregation. He would typically begin his address “Hullo”.
    Nobody in Britain uses ‘hullo’ in normal speech or writing.

  5. You seem really comfortable with the universality of your opinion, Nick. There are plenty of people who use the word “hullo.”

    Additionally I’m weirded out by what the point is of your post here, Ben. Do you want to embarrass the person who contacted you? Do you want to cast aspersions on whether or not he/she is affected or pseudo-british? Or do you just find people who contact you professionally ripe for mocking if they use language in a way you find unusual?

    1. I did not mean to mock or embarrass the writer or weird you out. However, the subject of this blog is the use of British words and expressions by Americans, and this e-mail led to a discussion that, while it might not have interested you, fit the blog perfectly and elicited comments that shed further light on the use of and differences between “hello,” “hallo,” and “hullo.”

  6. I would consider “hello” and “hallo” to be normal, but personally always use “hello”, which is the dominant form here in the UK, probably because people pronounce it to rhyme with “fellow”. But “Hullo”? – never.

  7. I’d venture that this is probably one of those Great Vowel Shift legacy words.

    Whilst almost everywhere in the UK the word is written “hello”, the actual first vowel used could be anything. The choice would depend on the location and age of the user.

    A good example would be someone putting on their “telephone voice” and answering the phone “hello”, where they would use hullo/hallo/hallo informally.

  8. Right, Peter. I was made keenly aware that the British accent the first syllable of “hello” on my first visit to the U.K. when I heard a parrot greeting me with “[vocal fry] HEH-lo!” instead of “heh-LOOOH!”

    1. I’m not sure I agree with this. If I answer the phone ‘Hello?’ the accent goes naturally to the second syllable. If I say ‘Hello’ so somebody I’ve just met, I think it varies, but tends towards the first syllable. But if I’m saying it as an exclamation (hello, what’s going on here then?) or as an expression of sensual stimulation, it’s definitely Hell-OHHHH. The great Leslie Phillips (best recognised now for his voicing of the Sorting Hat in the Harry potter movies) is the most notable exponent of this.

  9. The Bertie Wooster connection explains why I always hear Hugh Laurie in my head whenever I see the word ‘Hullo’.

  10. I am a middle-aged RP speaker. I would never use “hullo”. In fact it would strike me as odd. I am not so sure about “hello” and “hallo”; I think I’d go for the former.

    And it is not clear that “hullo” is really old fashioned, in the grand scheme of things; it seems it was merely was in vogue from the 30s to the late 60s.


  11. “Hullo” is eye-dialect, the attempt to indicate via spelling that a colloquial, informal register of speech is being used. Standard spelling everywhere in the English-speaking world.

      1. Cut myself short. It should have read “Standard spelling everywhere in the English-speaking world is ‘Hello’.”

    1. Indeed, its just how the word sounds by ear, and is used to indicate what Cameron describes (Another example would be “dat” instead of “that”). These can be specifically oriented to evoke the notion that the characters are of a specific dialect, or just in more general terms that there is some level of colloquiality/informality.

  12. oo – oo – I’ve just thought of a deeply English use of the word ‘hello’. There’s a long-running radio drama called the Archers on BBC Radio 4 of which some of your adherents will doubtless be aware. In it, if two people are conversing and a third arrives on the scene, the third character is wont to say ‘Hello, you two!’. It has become part of radio folklore, and instances of it are seized upon by fans.

    1. And indeed there’s Leslie Phillips in another BBC radio show of beloved memory, The Navy Lark, and his lecherous “Well, helloooooooooooo!” Can’t get more quintessentially English really.

  13. I’m inclined to think that Bertie Wooster is much less quintessentially English than he is an American idea of quintessential Englishness created for an American market (he’s certainly not quintessential Scots or Welsh). Wodehouse should probably be regarded as an American writer in much the same way that Henry James or TS Eliot were English writers. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of Bertie Wooster and Jeeves, just as I’m a huge fan of the not wholly dissimilar Peter Wimsey and Bunter, but they represent a kind of Englishness that this English lass has never encountered in real life.

  14. I am from India and had my education there in a good school in Mussoorie (the foothills of the Himalayas). I finished my school education in 1963, doing Senior Cambridge. We always used “HULLO”… as this is how we spoke at home and at school, and, we still do.

  15. I’m in Singapore. I’ve always written ‘hullo’ because that reflects the way I pronounce the word. I’m very aware that I’m the quirky one here and elsewhere, but I’m not bothered.

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