A side effect of being a translator is an obsession with words, grammar and language. Sometimes the smallest error made in a book or by a journalist or the incorrect use of a word can occupy my brain for days, weeks…. Even months. A particular dislike of the expression “hey-ho” has been bubbling away in my brain for months. It seems to me to be creeping into the everyday speech of all my friends from the UK. All my conversations with visitors and on the telephone seemed to be peppered with “hey-ho, hey-ho”. It was like talking to the seven dwarfs! Yet I said nothing…
At first I assumed it was something people said in Tunbridge Wells (strangely, a large percentage of my friends lives in Tunbridge Wells) and I tried hard to ignore it. However, I then heard an obviously northern newsreader say it and then, shock, horror… my sister, born, bred and living in Birmingham uttered the dreaded words! I almost asked her about it, but didn’t want to look ‘ignorant’, so I decided to find out when, where and why this way of saying “that’s the way it goes” or “mustn’t grumble” became so popular.
Goodness gracious me! I was entirely wrong in thinking this was a new addition to the English language! A little online research revealed that the exclamation had first appeared in print in 1471 in the Oxford English Dictionary. This learned tome says that the words were once used by sailors to mark the rhythm of heaving or hauling. It has now been added to the new Collins dictionary, which defines it as “an exclamation of weariness, disappointment, surprise or happiness”,
When did it start meaning, “aw shucks”! Apparently the meaning blended with the similarly spelled “heigh-ho” which was first seen in 1553 and was defined as a way of displaying “yawning, sighing, languor, weariness or disappointment”.
“Hey-ho” was first adopted by the Urban Dictionary, which is a reference book of American slang, in 2006. This dictionary says that it is “a word used when something has not gone according to plan, to dispel one’s feeling of disappointment”. An example of this would be, “So you got me a vacuum cleaner for my birthday… Hey-ho!”
According to Tony Thorne, a language consultant at King’s College London, this is all down to social media. Now we need to find words that express the nuances we want to add to our conversations and this is one of them.
So there you are… I thought I knew it all… but hey-ho!