At a social gathering in the Californian port city of San Diego, a retired US Navy captain once explained to me the difference between a ship and a boat: “Son,” he said, “if you can load it on a ship, it’s a boat.”
The man knew a lot and liked to chat about seafaring matters, although his speech was naturally interspersed with the jargon – sorry, the jargon – of seafarers.
When I asked what the term “Ahoy” was all about, where it came from and what it meant, the good man shrugged his shoulders: “It’s an old sailor’s greeting that doesn’t mean anything else.” He was right – and yet he wasn’t, as I was to learn much later when I read Dietmar Bartz’s lexicon of seafaring language.
This exciting book entitled “Tampen, Pütz und Wanten” was expanded for the third edition in 2018 to include an extensive entry on the maritime invocation “Ahoy”. The author meticulously and persistently traces the origin of the term, which on the one hand is a signal word in sailor’s language used to call a ship or a boat. On the other hand, there are a lot of additional meanings that have nothing to do with seafaring and are described in detail by Bartz.
First the cattle, then the sailor
The apparently original maritime word probably comes from agriculture. It goes back to a call used by English farmers to drive their cattle, which is documented as early as the 14th century, in a poem about a man plowing a field. In contrast, “Ahoy” is still a relatively new word in the sailor’s language. The use of the original English form was first documented in 1751, and in German in 1828.
The term “Ahoy” goes back to a call used by English farmers to drive their cattle.
The word quickly spread through novels and plays, making it an indicator of maritime themes: If someone shouts “Ahoy”, it is about seafaring or at least about a sailor. In the world of real seafaring, the term was considered outdated in the meantime, but became more common again with the increasing popularity of sailing as a sporting hobby.
The “Ahoy” appears in many everyday, even non-maritime contexts. Anyone who was socialized in West Germany will certainly be familiar with the sherbet powder Ahoj with the funny sailor logo, which was a must at every children’s party. In the East, “Ahoy” was used as a greeting or, less frequently, as a farewell word, preferably by young landlubbers.
Homer says Hello
Its mass distribution was due in no small part to Czech films. It was popularized in the 1920s by young people and students who paddled the South Bohemian rivers in canoes. In a kind of Wandervogel movement, they stood in romantic opposition to the Czech bourgeoisie, who had chosen boring gymnastics as their sport. The young people expressed their spirit of optimism with the dynamic cry of “Ahoy” and what they perceived as international and chic boating fun.
Alexander Graham Bell zog mit Ahoy als Telefonruf den Kürzeren © Ralf Hettler / Grafissimo / istockphoto
It is interesting to note a dispute between the two American inventors of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Alva Edison, which was not only about technology, but also about the correct word to use to open a telephone conversation. Bell favored “Ahoy”, while his competitor Edison said that you should always say “Hello”. The fact that “Hello” is also a maritime call that has been in use since the 16th century and was replaced by “Ahoy” in the 18th century is another matter.
Edison ultimately won this dispute. This anecdote found its way into the animated series “The Simpsons”, which is already rich in cultural references: In one episode, power plant owner Montgomery Burns answers the phone with “Ahoy! ‘hoy!”, to which Homer Simpson responds with “Hello?”.
This text first appeared on float on December 30, 2016. Updated on December 26, 2023.