linguistics and lexicography Love English

Hail-phrase-well-met

© ImageSourceI was ploughing through a legal thriller recently (Limitations by Scott Turow) when I came across a line that brought me up short: ‘“Nathan!” George cries, hail fellow well met, as he strides out.’ Hail fellow well met. I’ve been encountering this expression on and off over the years, but never properly examined it. What exactly does it mean, and where does it come from?

Macmillan Dictionary, which hyphenates the phrase, says hail-fellow-well-met is an adjective that means ‘behaving in a very friendly way that is annoying or does not seem sincere’. So it packs quite a lot of nuance into a few familiar, if unpredictably arranged, words, usually indicating not so much a certain amount of social intimacy as an assumption or display of too much of it. It may be an extension of the shorter phrase hail-fellow (also Hail, fellow!, etc.), which the OED notes was both a greeting and a descriptive expression used in a range of constructions. The second part, Well met, was also a greeting: roughly ‘it’s good that we’ve met’, according to World Wide Words.



If the expression sounds archaic or old-fashioned to you, you’d be right – it dates to the sixteenth century at least. Thomas Hardy used the shorter phrase in The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886): ‘He crossed the room to her with a heavy tread of some awkwardness […] and with something of a hail-fellow bearing’. The adjective’s meaning is more transparent in Lord Delamere’s advice to the well-heeled in the late seventeenth century: ‘Let not your Servants be over-familiar or haile fellow with you.’

Sometimes, though, it’s not meant negatively, and hail-fellow­ or hail-fellow-well-met­ conveys simple friendly familiarity, not an excess of it. This is perhaps what James Joyce intended in Ulysses, when he describes newspaper men as charging at one another one moment and ‘Hail fellow well met the next moment’.

Hail is a very old word which over the centuries has amassed multiple meanings in different grammatical categories: verb, noun, adjective, interjection. This last use – where Hail! itself is a greeting or exclamation – goes back to around 1200, and is rarely encountered today. At least not in everyday discourse; Hail Mary is a devotional salutation used in a prayer of the same name. The related verb hail, originally meaning to salute someone or greet them with a Hail!, is roughly the same age, and survives in a way – we still hail a taxi, meaning call it or attract its attention. And if we’re lucky the driver isn’t too hail-fellow-well-met.

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About the author

Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.

7 Comments

  • Really interesting post, Stan. There is quite a bit of corpus evidence for the adjectival use you mention (hail-fellow-well-met), and it confirms the idea that this often carries negative connotations (of insincerity etc). Here are a couple of lines from the corpus: “The charm, the wit, the sophisticated hail-fellow-well-met , trust-me-I’m-a-great-guy front that he presented was just a facade.” “Richardson courted the despots with the same rumpled, hail-fellow-well-met manner that won him friends at home. He played up his friendship with the president, flattered the hostage-holders..” I assume “well-met” was well-established as a greeting long ago, because Shakespeare subverts it in Midsummer Night’s Dream, where Oberon says to Titania “Ill met by moonlight” – which later became the title of a movie.

  • Thanks, Michael. It’s probably safe in most instances to assume the phrase has negative connotations, but worth remembering that it doesn’t always. I like those example from the corpus. I haven’t seen Ill Met By Moonlight but I love Powell and Pressburger’s work so I’ll be sure to look out for it.

  • I first came across the phrase in the instructions to conducting staff reports at work in 1970’s. As I recall we were asked to describe the person as more than a “hail fellow well met”. I think that implies that there is a certain superficiality about the “hail fellow…” assessment and the report wanted something deeper or more meaningful? Anyway a rather quaint turn of phrase but I was working in a museum so that explains a lot!

  • Colin: Avoiding a superficial assessment does seem to be the intention there. It’s interesting that the phrase was used in such a context – and that its meaning wasn’t completely clear to those it was meant for.

  • Many thanks Stan. Yes – they were forever tinkering with the report form. “Provide a vivid pen-portrait” was another instruction which was presumably intended to boost creative writing. The system seems to have been rather Dickensian in retrospect!

  • One of the first jokes I ever learned as a child (my skills have improved since, really!) is “What’s worse than raining cats and dogs? Hailing taxis.”

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