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Hail fellow well met

Q From Tommy Richey: Could you please elucidate the historical and present usage of hail fellow well met? Most contemporary dictionaries classify the phrase as adjectival (punctuated hail-fellow-well-met). This seems odd, given its original use (I think) as a salutation or genial exclamation. Why the shift? And when did people turn this phrase into a mock-archaic saying? Do we blame the Society for Creative Anachronism and World of Warcraft?

A It certainly sounds like a mildly humorous modern mock-archaic creation. But it’s ancient and is still to be found, especially in the UK:

The grieving widow flinched as he approached and the — ridiculously young — vicar twitched as if he was considering confronting him. Barry grunted, “Don’t even think about it, lad.” He reached the lectern and Ray, all conciliatory, hail fellow, well met, said, “Come on, Barry, be sensible. Take a pew and show some respect.”

Started Early, Took My Dog, by Kate Atkinson, 2010.

It means a person, usually male, who is heartily friendly and congenial, or more often is trying hard to appear so and overdoes it. There’s often an undercurrent of falseness of the sort that’s associated with the more pushy type of sales person.

It was created by putting together two ancient expressions, hail, fellow! and well met.

The greeting hail is from the same source as hale, healthy, which came into English from the Old Norse heill, sound or whole. It commonly appeared in greetings and toasts, such as wæs hæil, good health, from which we get wassail. In medieval England, you might have greeted a friend with hail be thou, wishing him good health. This was abbreviated over time into an exclamation and then became our usual term for a shout to attract attention. A fellow in medieval English was a comrade, companion or associate (which we still have in phrases such as fellow worker and fellow citizen) and hail, fellow! was a way to greet one. However, by about 1580 the greeting had acquired a negative aspect, describing an over-familiar person, often of the lower orders. A writer of the seventeenth century warned “Let not your Servants be over-familiar or hail fellow with you.”

Well met was a greeting — roughly “it’s good that we’ve met” — that you might give a friend when you encountered him unexpectedly or when inviting him to join a convivial gathering. A fellow well-met by extension meant a boon companion, a close friend with whom one enjoys spending time.

They were combined a lot longer ago than you might expect. The Oxford English Dictionary has its first example from as early as 1581. In 1589, the writer Thomas Nashe described it as a “collation of contraries”, since well met was positive and welcoming, while hail fellow could be two-faced and false.

Hail fellow, well met stayed in the language throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries but only became widely popular after about 1800, peaking in the middle of the century.

This was the case with Mr Phillott, who prided himself upon his slang, and who was at one time “hail fellow, well met” with the seamen, talking to them, and being answered as familiarly as if they were equals, and at another, knocking the very same men down with a handspike if he were displeased.

Peter Simple, by Frederick Marryat, 1844.

Its popularity has fallen away a good deal since but, as I said, it's still in use:

Nick Ferrari, the presenter of the LBC breakfast show, makes for a somewhat alarming prospect first thing in the morning, his hail-fellow-well-met manners and his pugilistic confidence coming at you like a triple espresso with too much sugar in it.

Observer, 20 Apr. 2014.

Page created 24 May 2014

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Last modified: 24 May 2014.