Illustrations by Teresa Bellón
Imagine you’re living 100-300 million years ago. That’s right – you have no smart phone, there’s no Wi-Fi and nothing even remotely like an iced latte anywhere on the planet. You’re one of the first Homo sapiens and you’re hanging out in the rainforest, foraging for nuts and berries. Deep in thought, contemplating a fat grub, you suddenly hear a rustling in the bushes. Your fight or flight responses go on alert, but wait! One of your best tribe-buddies springs out of the verdant undergrowth and (imagine your surprise) utters the first words ever articulated by the human species:
Well, ok, perhaps that wasn’t exactly the first thing ever said by a human — but if it was, I’m sure you’d have been gobsmacked. Once you recovered from your shock, you might have responded in kind:
“Who are you calling gurrrl, sister?”
“Hey gurl!” means Hello girlfriend! and is (be warned) a very sassy way to say hello used only between close friends of a certain social milieux (young, urban, female/LGBTQ), with the attendant slang spelling of girl as gurl or gurrrl. Think Ru Paul’s Drag Race and you’ve got it.
The honest truth is that we will never know when Homo sapiens first began to speak, let alone what those first words might have been. Disregarding this anthropo-linguistic blind-spot, it is nevertheless a fact that when we meet someone for the first time, the way we say hello speaks volumes about us. Encoded in those first few words is information about where we’re from, our background, age, education and social status. For example, if your usual way of greeting friends is “Ey blud” (Hello, blood brother), it’s highly likely you’re a young, British male of working-class background, and you probably grew up in the Greater London region.
English speakers have a dazzling array of greetings, each of which has a subtly different emphasis and mode of use. If you want to seamlessly slide into English-speaking society — at whatever level — you need to master the appropriate ways to say hello. Your first words will set the tone for the conversation to follow, so choose them carefully!
To help you make a fabulous first impression with English-speaking members of your species, we’ve gathered together the best of the bunch:
Easy-peasy greetings you can use anywhere (well, sort of)
“Hi!” Yes, sometimes it’s that easy. This and “Hello” are undoubtedly the most common greetings and can be used anytime, anywhere. Next we have time-specific greetings, which can be used with or without good in front. These are “Good morning,” “Good afternoon” and “Good evening,” used respectively (and unsurprisingly) in the morning, afternoon and evening. Good makes the already perfectly acceptable “Morning/Afternoon/Evening” slightly more polite, and we often drop it. Do be careful to avoid saying the old-fashioned Good day (unless you want to sound like a character from a Dickens novel or the parish vicar). What’s more, if you say Night or Goodnight, people will think you’re going home to bed — it means goodbye!
Now, if you’re on a first date or meeting your new boss, you’ll want to show some enthusiasm and open with “Nice to meet you,” “Great to meet you!,” “Pleased to meet you” or “It’s a pleasure to meet you.” However, if you’re meeting Barbra Streisand, Barack Obama or the Bishop of Canterbury for the first time, you’d probably plump for “It’s a great honor to meet you, madam/sir/your grace.”
For reunions or chance encounters with old friends, lovers and colleagues you can loudly exclaim “Good to see you,” “Long time no see,” “It’s been ages!” or “How’ve you been?” Where you go from there is your affair…
Close encounters of the friendly kind
It’s true that one must carefully navigate the swamps of the English-speaking upper echelons for fear of making faux-pas. But rest easy, most of the time English speakers are actually very friendly and laid-back! With friends and colleagues you’ll quickly learn that informal is normal. You can greet someone warmly with:
- “Hey you“
- “How’s it going/goin’?“
- “What’s up?/Whassup?/’Sup?“
- “What’s cookin’?“
- “What’s new?“
- “What’s happening?“
Around the world
On top of this already mind-boggling list, there is a huge variety of greetings used worldwide. Let’s take a whirlwind tour of the possibilities!
If you’re on a road trip around the USA, you can try to blend in by saying “Howdy” or “How do, partner?” and, if meeting a good buddy, “Dude!” or “Yo! Yo! Yo! (home boy)“.
At formal occasions in the British Isles (dinner at the embassy, for example), you should greet your hosts with “Charmed, I’m sure,” “A pleasure!” or “How do you do?”
At the other end of the spectrum — in everyday, informal situations — try any of the following, all of which mean hello.
- “How do?“
- “Alright mate“
Likewise, in Liverpool you’ll hear “Alright laa,” in Leeds “Areet,” in Northern England “Aye up!” in Manchester “Y’alright cock?” and in Cornwall (brace yourself) “Wasson me cock?” Enthusiastic working-class Londoners will shout “Oi oi saveloy!” at you (literally Hello sausage!), and London yoof (young people) greet each other with “Easy bruv” (Take it easy, brother), “Ey blud!” and “‘sup blud?” (What’s up, blood brother?)
On a wet weekend in Ireland you’ll often be greeted with “What’s the craic?” (What’s the gossip?), “What’s the story?” or “Top o’ the mornin’ to you!” (a clichéd greeting that is seldom heard these days except in films starring leprechauns).
Heading down under to Australia, we bump into the classic “G’day mate!” (Good day, friend!). Our Kiwi cousins in New Zealand usually employ “You alright?” or, if you’re from the small town of Wanganui, “Eh bro” (Hello brother).
Last on our list is Jamaica, where the form of spoken English is Jamaican Creole (also known as Patois). The next time you’re down in Kingston town, be prepared for the locals to start a conversation with “Hey mon, wa gwaan?” (Hello friend, what’s going on?), “Waapen?” (What’s happening?), “Waddup?” (What’s up?) and the oft used “Rispeck!” (Respect!). This is not only useful in Jamaica though, as Jamaican Creole is spoken as far afield as Miami, New York, London, Manchester, Toronto, Costa Rica and Nicaragua!
So, there it is. The kaleidoscopic beauty of English greetings. Don’t be intimidated though — if you’re at a loss for words you can always smile sweetly, nod, and repeat what your conversation partner has just said… Rispeck!