Ahoy (greeting)

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Graffiti on a house wall in Bratislava, Slovak Republic: a sketch of a winking girl, a heart, and the word 'Ahoj'.

Ahoy (/əˈhɔɪ/) is a signal word used to signal a ship or boat, stemming from the Middle English cry, 'Hoy!'.[1] The word had fallen into obsolescence before rising from obscurity as the sport of sailing rose in popularity. 'Ahoy' can also be used as a greeting, a warning, or a farewell.

The word can also be found with similar pronunciation and writing in several other languages. In Slovak and Czech also, ahoj is a common, colloquial greeting while 'Hoi' is used in Modern Dutch as an informal greeting equivalent to English 'hi' or 'hey'. 'Ohøj' is used in Danish almost identically to aforementioned usages. It is of maritime origin as an interjection to catch the attention of other crew members, and as a general greeting. Despite this, it can sometimes be found used on land as a general greeting; especially in a maritime context.

Alexander Graham Bell originally suggested 'ahoy' be adopted as the standard greeting when answering a telephone, before 'hello' (suggested by Thomas Edison) became common.[2]

Early forms and development[edit]

Piers the Plowman, driving oxen, in a Psalter from the 14th century

Ahoy is a combination of the call 'hoy' plus the sound 'a', presumably added to draw more attention to the cry. 'Hoy!' was a common call in England to drive cattle. The earliest known example is from William Langland, in whose 1393 epic poem, Piers the Ploughman, the word first appears in Middle English: 'And holpen to erie þis half acre with 'hoy! troly! lolly!',[3] which roughly translates to "And helped to plow this half acre with 'hoy! troly! lolly!'".[4]

Seamen used the word "hoy" in the form of "hoay". The Scottish poet William Falconer, author of a nautical dictionary, wrote 1769: "If the master intends to give any order to the people in the main-top, he calls, Main-top, hoay! To which they answer, Holloa!“,[5] Two other dictionaries from 1805 list Falconers call as "hoay" and answer "holloa".[6] "Ahoy" does not appear.

Functionally related with "hoy" is a group of similar sounding calls and greetings in the Germanic languages: Middle and Modern English "hey" and "hi", German and Dutch hei, in Sweden hej,[7] and the Dutch greeting hoi.[8]

In Old Russian "goy" was a standard greeting which is still present in Russian folk fairy tales.

In Czech and Slovak, 'Ahoj' (pronounced [ˈaɦɔj]) is a commonly used as an informal greeting, comparable to "Hello". It was borrowed from English and became popular among people engaged in water sports. It gained wide currency by the 1930s.[1]

Popular culture[edit]

A recent resurgence in the popularity of the term has resulted from its use by The Simpsons character Montgomery Burns, who often answers the telephone with the greeting of "Ahoy-hoy". The use of the now-defunct ahoy-hoy, instead of the standard "hello", is a running joke referring to Mr. Burns' very advanced age.[9]

Czechoslovakian cartoon character Mole also often used the greeting ahoj, popularizing it amongst children in Hungary, Poland, Russia, Belarus, East and West Germany, Austria, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, France, Spain, China, Japan, and India from the 1960s to the early 2000s.[10]

In the TV series The Big Bang Theory season 5 episode 08, Sheldon answers the phone saying Ahoy after he explains to his roommate that Alexander Graham Bell proposed answering that way.


  1. ^ a b "Ahoy!". World Wide Words. 2010-09-11. Retrieved 2013-02-01. 
  2. ^ "Online Etymology Dictionary". Etymonline.com. Retrieved 2013-02-01. 
  3. ^ OED s.v. hoy int. The epos has three known variants - A, B, and C. The form hoy is taken from variant C; in A it is written as hey, in B as how. The dating is taken from OED
  4. ^ The connection with similar passages ("hey" instead of "hoy") in two songs from the early 16th century is unclear. See Ray Siemens: Revisiting the Text of the Henry VIII Manuscript (BL Add Ms 31,922): An Extended Note. In: Early Modern Literary Studies 14.3 (2009) 3.1–36.
  5. ^ William Falconer: An universal dictionary of the Marine. London 1769, s. v. Holloa, cited according to OED s. v. hoy int.
  6. ^ J. J. Moore: The Midshipman’s Or British Mariner’s Vocabulary. London 1801 und Washington 1805, s.v. hoay. Charles James: A new and enlarged military dictionary. 2. Aufl. London 1805, s.v. hoay
  7. ^ OED s.v. hey, hi
  8. ^ Het Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal op Internet, s.v. hoi, verified on 19 November 2008
  9. ^ The Simpsons - Mr. Burns telephone. YouTube. 29 November 2011. 
  10. ^ Jozwik, Ziemowit. "A Treasury of Europe". Europe & Me.