Hey is NOT for Horses

I met Becky during Freshman Orientation week, which was called Customs Week at Haverford College.  She was my first friend from south of the Mason-Dixon line and I learned one of her Carolina customs immediately. 

Becky’s typical greeting was “Hey!”  I remember thinking that it was such a strange greeting.  My Brooklyn-born parents considered hey to be rude.  If we ever said hey to them, they would inevitably reply: “Hay is for horses.”  Becky said hey every single time she saw me.  I wondered what my parents would make of her when they met her on Parents Weekend.

Now, more than 25 years later, having moved to Atlanta and, regrettably, no longer in contact with Becky, I find myself saying Hey! Of all the southern regionalisms, the only one that I have unconsciously adopted is the one that I most assiduously resisted.  Of course, I had also roundly rejected y’all (too folksy) and all y’all (redundant), fixin’ to rain (God as the chief plumber of heaven?) and might could (temptingly vague, but sounds odd).  When I noticed myself passing people on the street and greeting them as Becky did, I realized that I had slipped into speaking southern.  Clearly, such behavior from a die-hard Yankee Carpetbagger demands justification.

First, hey is somehow friendlier than hi, perhaps because it can be pronounced southern, the diphthong of the “ay” emphasized, even drawn out into its own syllable.  While gently drawling hey, holding the vowel an extra moment in his or her mouth, the speaker maintains eye contact and a smile.  In NYC, I walk the streets not making eye contact or smiling at all, instead softly exhaling my breath into silent vocalizations and debating the merits of living in the greatest city on earth where strangers do not share pleasantries. 

I have found no superior substitute for hey. “Good morning” is excellent before noon, but “good afternoon” and “good evening” are too many syllables and too formal for sidewalks.  Sometimes, when I greet my neighbor I am vaguely aware of sounding like a local, but the “Hey!” has left my lips before it registers in my brain.  As I pass by, still smiling, I think of Becky and wish her a silent hey, wherever she is now.


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