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Goodbye, Goodbye. . . .

Here’s something we wouldn’t say nowadays. It’s in a “parlor ballad” published in The Social Harp (1855):

Farewell, farewell is a lonely sound,
And always brings a sigh,
But give to me that good old word
That comes from the heart, good-bye.

Adieu, adieu, may do for the gay,
When pleasure’s throng is nigh,
But give to me when lovers part,
That loving word, good-bye.

Farewell, adieu, goodbye—it’s strange that a 19th-century song should ascribe such loving emotion to the latter. We still say goodbye when ending a spoken conversation, especially on the telephone. But it has become the neutral way to signal that it’s over. In the 21st century, a spoken conversation between people who aren’t particularly intimate begins with hello and ends with goodbye.

Not that you can’t say hey and bye, or sup and ciao, or countless other greetings and farewells, but the neutral, normal, “unmarked” way is to bracket the conversation with hello and goodbye.

Hello, introduced for use with the telephone in the 19th century, is simply a variant of the call halloo, as I mentioned last week. Goodbye, on the other hand, turns out to be a blessing in disguise, a contraction of God be with you.

And unlike hello, goodbye has been around for a while. The Oxford English Dictionary finds goodbye and its antecedents as far back as Shakespeare and his contemporaries, for example in Hamlet (1616) “I so, God buy ye,” and later in a 1652 play called City Wit, “Heartily Godbuy, good Mr. Crasy.”

With the shortening of the phrase to a single word, and the change of God to Good, the religious connotation of goodbye seems to have disappeared by the early 19th century, as in Byron’s Don Juan (1819): “And so your humble servant, and good bye!” Like Dear in the salutation of a letter even when the recipient is not dear at all, goodbye became just the way you ended a conversation.

So goodbye nowadays is free to pick up other connotations. Celine Dion, for example, sings:

Goodbye’s the saddest word I’ll ever hear;
Goodbye’s the last time I will hold you near;
Someday you’ll say that word and I will cry;
It’ll break my heart to hear you say goodbye.

Regardless of connotations, it’s always been hard to say goodbye—or rather, hard to stop saying it, especially on the telephone. Each party to the conversation often feels inclined to have the last word, resulting in a trail of echoing goodbyes (or byes) as the conversation comes to an end.

The drawn-out ending is as old as the telephone itself. Mark Twain illustrated it in his sketch “Telephonic Conversation,” published in 1881, when the telephone was as new as the iPhone is today:

Must you go? Well, good-bye.
Pause.
Yes, I think so. Good-bye.
Pause.
Four o’clock, then—I’ll be ready. Good-bye.
Pause.
Thank you ever so much. Good-bye.
Pause.
Oh, not at all!—just as fresh—Which? Oh, I’m glad to hear you say that. Good-bye.
(Hangs up the telephone and says, “Oh, it does tire a person’s arm so!”)

Well, that’s it for today. Goodbye … Goodbye. …

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