Dear Straight Dope:
I have often wondered why sailors hail other vessels with "ship ahoy!" I understand the ship part, but why "ahoy?"
It’s difficult to trace the origin of interjections or exclamations, which tend not to appear in formal writing. It’s even more difficult to do so without throwing in lots of other interesting facts found along the way. So I may not answer your question exactly, but I think we’ve got some interesting information anyhow.
The term “ahoy” is obviously nautical, although the exact origin is unknown. Some authorities think it dates back to an ancient Viking battle cry. The meaning is the same as “hail!”, a salute or greeting.
Eric Partridge traces it to the earlier interjection “hoy!” and the early Dutch “hui!” and perhaps the French “ohé!”, all from the Middle Dutch “hoey” or “hode” and possibly derived from Old High German “huota” meaning protection (whence the word "heed"). For what it’s worth, a hoy is a small coasting freighter.
“Hoy” does not seem to be related to “hail” which comes from the Old Norse “heill” to the Middle English “hail!” used in greeting.
In English, the first written usage cited by the Oxford English Dictionary is from the 1750s, quoting Tobias Smollet’s wonderful Adventures of Peregrine Pickle, a contemporary of Fielding’s famous Tom Jones and one of my favorites since high school: “Ho! The house ahoy! What cheer!” "Ahoy!" was obviously well enough known at the time that Smollet could make a joke of hailing a house rather than a ship.
So the term, although nautical, was used as a hail or call in a broader sense. By the late 1880s, it could also be used as a verb, meaning “to call out ‘ahoy!'” The OED cites, “She ahoys the schooner."
Alexander Graham Bell suggested “ahoy!” as the standard telephone greeting, but it didn’t catch on–for obvious reasons, you may think. Don’t be so sure. Brooklyn College professor Allen Koenigsberg, author of The Patent History of the Phonograph, argues that the word that did catch on, "hello," was previously unknown and may have been invented by the man who proposed it, Thomas Edison.
Exclamations such as "ho!", "yo!" (can anyone past a certain age see that word without thinking "yo, Adrian"?), "yo-ho!" and even "hi!" derive from “ahoy.” (The famous "yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum” was invented–or at least made famous–by Robert Louis Stevenson in Treasure Island and was not, in fact, piratical.)
Olivia A. Isil, in When a Loose Cannon Flogs a Dead Horse There’s the Devil to Pay (a book of seafaring words used in everyday life), comments that "ahoy!" caught the fancy of the Victorian public, and reminds us that Gilbert and Sullivan operettas are liberally sprinkled with such phrases “to add nautical atmosphere and salt to their characters and skits"–even when a Japanese second trombone sings a song of the sea.
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.
STAFF REPORTS ARE WRITTEN BY THE STRAIGHT DOPE SCIENCE ADVISORY BOARD, CECIL'S ONLINE AUXILIARY. THOUGH THE SDSAB DOES ITS BEST, THESE COLUMNS ARE EDITED BY ED ZOTTI, NOT CECIL, SO ACCURACYWISE YOU'D BETTER KEEP YOUR FINGERS CROSSED.