Hi, Harvey! How’s It Going?

On Language

By Philologos

Published November 25, 2009, issue of December 04, 2009.
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Hi, readers!

If I’ve never addressed you that way in the past, it’s because until a few years ago, no one started a written English communication by hi-ing anyone. If you were writing a letter to someone named Harvey Rosenblum, you would begin it, if you wished to be formal, “Dear Mr. Rosenblum.” If you wished to be informal, you would write “Dear Harvey.” And if Harvey were a good friend, and that, too, seemed overly formal, you might have preferred plain “Harvey.” Those were your choices.

Not anymore. Recently, “Hi, Harvey,” or even “Hi, Mr. Rosenblum,” has become a common fourth choice. In part, this has to do with the increasingly antiquated aura that surrounds the salutatory “Dear,” and in part, with the growing informality of American and contemporary life in general. E-mail and the Internet have played a role, too. Once, when it took a week or two for your letter to reach someone, and another week or two to receive a reply, there was a ceremoniousness about corresponding that seemed to justify the use of “Dear.” Nowadays, when we can (and sometimes do) exchange e-mails with the same person 10 times a day, it tends to strike us as stilted and stuffy.

There’s really no need to look for other explanations — certainly not for one as far afield as Hebrew. And yet I can’t resist pointing out not only that “Hi, Harvey” has long been a way of addressing Hebrew letters, but also that it has a nearly 2,000-year-old history behind it.

“Harvey shalom” — that is, “Hi, Harvey” or “Hello, Harvey,” — is how Israelis have been writing each other for decades. It’s a casual form of the more formal “L’Harvey shalom,” “Hello to Harvey,” which is far older and has been around

at least since the days of Palestine’s 132 C.E. Bar-Kokhba Revolt. This has been known since 1960, when an archeological expedition to the Judean Desert was led by Yigael Yadin, a Hebrew University professor. As Yadin tells it in a book he later wrote, on one of the expedition’s first days, a bundle of papyri, in which were also four wooden slats, was discovered in a cave. Pulling out one of the slats, he writes: “My hand copied [it] automatically without my mind registering the words. When I finally looked at what I had scribbled, I could not believe my eyes.”

What Yadin’s eyes saw was a letter from the revolt’s leader, who was known to Jewish tradition as Shimon Bar-Kokhba. It began: “From Shimon bar Kosiba [Bar-Kokhba’s true name], President over Israel, to Yehonatan and Masabala, shalom.” Yehonatan and Masabala were two of Bar-Kokhba’s military commanders, and, dictating to a secretary, Bar-Kokhba was writing to pass on to them a set of orders.

Had this been the only letter the expedition found, its salutation might have been considered a one-time matter. But there were others like it, most written on papyrus and most beginning with the same formula. “From Shimon bar Kosiba to the men of En-gedi… shalom.” “From Shimon bar Kosiba to Yeshua ben Galgoula and to the men of the fort, shalom.” “From the administrators of Bet Mashko and from Eleazar to Yeshua ben Galgoula chief of the camp, shalom.” Many of these letters were hastily scribbled notes. The one from “the administrators of Beth Mashko,” for instance, continued, “Let it be known to you that the cow which Yehosef ben Ariston took from Ya’akov ben Yehudah, who dwells in Bet Mashko, belongs to him [that is, to Ya’akov] by purchase.”

Of course, shalom also means “peace” in Hebrew, and Yadin translated the salutations of these letters not as “Hi, Yehonatan and Masabala” and the like, but as “Peace be to Yehonatan and Masabala.” Yet, the formulaic nature of the word in the Bar-Kokhba letters strongly suggests that Yehonatan, Masabala and others understood shalom as a routine greeting and not as Bar-Kokhba’s heartfelt wish that they live in peace. It was a greeting, however, that did indicate a degree of familiarity or friendship. When Bar-Kokhba wished to be more formal, he left out the shalom, as in another letter to the same two commanders that began simply, “Shimon bar Kosiba to Yehonatan bar Be’ayan and Masabala bar Shimon.”

Do I honestly think this has anything to do with the “Hi, Harvey” greeting that has become part of American epistolary style? No, I don’t. As many Israeli émigrés as are now living in America, I doubt whether their influence has extended to the way Americans write letters or e-mails. We now hi Harvey because we don’t want to dear him anymore, and the dearer he is to us, the less we want to. The way things are going, we’ll soon write “Dear Harvey” only when Harvey isn’t dear to us at all.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.

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