Tuesday, September 10, 2013


As an add-on to or completion of the last post on phrases used to say goodbye, I might as well note here initial greetings when people meet again. If a farewell hold within itself a kind of pain, caused by the demands of time—and therefore time is emphasized in the words themselves—such is not the case when rividerci becomes vederci.

Now it turns out that time tends to play as much of a role in greetings as in goodbyes, but in a different way. The most common form of that is to note the time of day when the greeting takes place—and then to preface that time with the word “good.” Good morning, Good day, Good evening. When we say Good night, however, we’re actually saying goodbye. The good is added because it is pleasing to meet, painful to part. But in many parts of the world an old tradition still rules, based on status.

When I was growing up in Hungary, thus the late 1930s and early 1940s—and later, in Bavaria, as I continued gaining height, the most common form of our Hello was Servus. It amused me, therefore, the other day, when I was doing my due diligence in preparing these blog entries, that the Italian Ciao derives from the same root. The root is Servus in all cases, but in Italy it comes from an Old Venetian form of the Mediaeval Latin sclavus, rendered as s-ciavón, later s-ciavo or s-ciao, and last with the S completely abraded, ciao. Even in greetings, time plays the role as the Relentless Eroder.

Hello itself rather baffles etymologists. It is dated back to at least the 1400s; attempts to trace it suggest that, as Holla!, it meant to stop, to cease. Another attempt is to assign it to halo or holo, the imperative of the Old German verb halon or holon, to fetch, thus calling the ferryman. It does not surprise me, therefore, that its latest eroded form is Hey! Hello, after all, requires two syllables—which is one too many for people on the go.

I am, dear reader, your faithful servant—another, more formal way of saying Servus—which, like Ciao, serves equally well as a greeting or as a goodbye.

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