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Q From Dave Nash: I have heard that ahoy derives from a Czech greeting, apparently popularised by sailors docking in English speaking ports — from the Czech ahoj, meaning ‘hello’.

A Wonderful! Another strange etymological story to add to my collection. Your informant, you see, has the matter exactly backwards.

Ahoj, said the same way as ahoy, is indeed used informally in Czech, and more widely still, I’m told, in Slovak. Jan Čulík, Senior Lecturer in Czech Studies at the University of Glasgow, tells me that Czech ahoj is a modern introduction from English and was borrowed from the sailor’s hail, despite the indisputable fact that the Czech Republic is landlocked (the Swiss have a navy, a very small one, but the Czechs don’t). A Czech etymological dictionary of 2001 says that it was introduced by hikers, boy scouts, sportsmen and young people; it came into wide use in the 1930s when hiking and scouting became generally widespread, though there are examples on record from as far back as the 1880s, when it was used, for example, as a word of command for the horses pulling sleighs.

Ahoy in English goes back a long way:

While he was thus occupied, a voice, still more uncouth than the former, bawled aloud, ‘Ho! the house, a-hoy!’

The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle, by Tobias Smollett, 1751. The idea of a person hailing a house as though it were a ship creates a comic image.

It’s based on hoy, an even older cry that dates from medieval times, a formalised spelling of a natural or inarticulate cry. William Langland was the first person known to have used it, in his poem Piers Plowman in the fourteenth century. Down the years it was used when driving pigs or cattle, or when you wanted to attract a person’s attention. Its successor is today’s uncouth shout of oy! In particular — and this is where the maritime connection really does appear — sailors used hoy! when hailing another ship. Ahoy was a development of this that added force to the cry:

I was wakened — indeed, we were all wakened, for I could see even the sentinel shake himself together from where he had fallen against the door-post — by a clear, hearty voice hailing us from the margin of the wood: ‘Block house, ahoy!’ it cried. ‘Here’s the doctor.’

Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson, 1883.

Incidentally, Alexander Graham Bell suggested ahoy as the way to answer his new telephone; operators at his first exchange did just that. This seemed too peremptory for others and hello replaced it, a word of the early nineteenth century that was based on shouts such as the hunting-field cry hollo!, an exclamation that can be traced back at least as far as Shakespeare’s use of it in Titus Andronicus.

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Page created 28 Jun 2008; Last updated 11 Sep 2010