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Making Hey

Willie Mays Kneeling on Ground

Willie Mays, known as the Say Hey Kid

Hey, gentle reader. I have a little something for you today. No eureka moments, just an observation:

In the United States, “hey” is gradually taking the place of “hi” in friendly greetings—whether in person or online.

I don’t mean the “hey” of “Hey, you! Yes, you!” that we use to attract someone’s attention. We’ve always had that. This is the “hey” or “hi” we say when we recognize a friend or acquaintance coming to meet us, or when we start an email. “Hi, Sam, how’s it going?” That sort of thing.

Now it happens that this “hey” is originally a Southernism. That was the situation in the late 1960s when the Dictionary of American Regional English sent interviewers to a thousand communities around the nation, asking (among 1,846 other questions) how locals would greet somebody they knew well. The dictionary fieldworkers found 60 people who would say “hey,” mostly just in the South and Lower Mississippi Valley. To illustrate the usage, that dictionary quotes Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, set in Alabama: “Tell him hey for me, won’t you?” and the reply “I’ll tell him you said hey.”

DARE doesn’t even have an entry for “hi,” which evidently was too universal to be a regional expression.

In those days, “hey” was so unusual outside the South that Willie Mays, a native of Alabama, was called the “Say Hey Kid” because he would say, “Hey, man. Say hey, man” to fellow ballplayers. In 1954 the saying even became a song by the Treniers, with this refrain:

Say hey, say who?
Say Willie
Say hey, say who?
Swinging at the plate
Say hey, say who?
Say Willie
That Giants kid is great.

Not that Willie had anything to do with it, but fast forward a few decades to Generation X, born in the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1980s, as this generation was growing up, “hey” began to expand beyond its former boundaries, emerging from the Old South to be a more common expression everywhere for greeting friends and relatives. Or for starting an email.

And the next generation, the millennials, have carried it even further. Here’s what one of them, a recent college graduate, told me when I asked: “I almost always say ‘hey’ in speech but I have free variation between ‘hi’ and ‘hey’ in writing. … I have a sort of three-way formality distinction for greetings—‘hey’ for friends my own age or younger, ‘hi’ for adults I know well or people my own age I’m just meeting, and ‘hello’ for adult strangers.”

I’m from an older generation, so I still say “hi.” But hey, you never know what I might be saying next year.

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