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  • Writer's pictureRebekah Gyger

Hey! Do You Enjoy Etymology?

In recent years, I have found an interest in languages and etymology. Naturally, this has found its way into my writing for both my fantasy and my Biblical fiction works.

While I can make up the languages in my fantasy books (which is its own kind of fun!), I have to do much more research into the languages used in my Biblical Fiction novels. For me, dialogue is an important focus in my writing. I want what my characters say to not only sound true to their personalities, but true to their time and culture... while also being readable for a modern audience.

My favorite way to do this is to add in language and turns of phrase that are both things the characters would say and that the reader can understand within the story's context.

In my current work, I am writing a lot from the perspective of children, which means implementing a lot of informal dialogue into the narrative. In English, this means featuring contractions along with words like "yeah" and "hey." But while contractions can be "hidden" or overlooked by a reader, those other words will likely stand out as inauthentic to a Biblical time period.

So, rather than give up on these words altogether, I have simply switched to researching what words might have been used in those periods. Some are easier than others, and if you read my books (Rahab: Hidden Scars is the only one available at the moment), you can find examples that are a mixed hodgepodge of different languages spoken in the regions my books are set in, during the applicable time periods.

One word that is new to my current work in progress is Hei! You can probably guess that it is pronounced as "hey" and means the same thing. The word is considered so informal in English, that most people (myself included!) have believed it to be a much more recently emerged word. However, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary (2018), this word was first recorded in English text c. 1200.

Not only that but similar words can be found in many other languages... even languages completely unrelated to English! I was most surprised to see a commenter in English Language & Usage cite Burmese (rickyzenon, 2014) as an example (the native language of one of my good friends).

Online Etymology Dictionary mentions "hei" in Latin and "eho" in Roman (I'm not sure what language they are referring to as "Roman") (2018), while Wiktionary puts היי (hey) as a Yiddish word (2020).

While none of this research seems to go farther back than c. 1200, and none of the sites I used are academic, it shows that the exclamation "Hey!" may go back much further than the 19th century, and that it may even be a natural sound for people to make when trying to draw attention (Online Etymology Dictionary, 2018) rather than just a word developed for that purpose.

So, could the children in my book have realistically said it? Absolutely! And why did I choose to spell it as "hei"? Just because that spelling would be less familiar to an English reader, and thus less likely to feel out of place in a story set during the time of Jesus.

What do you think? Do you agree with my usage of the word?


Do you know of any academic works that may collaborate or else disprove these website's statements regarding the etymology of "hey"?


"hey (interj.)." Online Etymology Dictionary, updated 25 September 2018,

rickyzenon. "what are the origins of hi, hey, hello?." English Language & Usage, 3 August 2014,

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