Warning: I’m about to geek out in an etymological fashion.
When I wrote Cast Off, the novel that’s coming out this coming Tuesday, May 19 (!!), I tried not to use words that didn’t exist when the novel takes place, which is the 1660s. So, for example, hullabaloo was out, because it originated in the 18th century, but hubbub was fine because it dates back to the 1550s. It was fun combing through the manuscript looking for offenders and then researching substitutes. And surprising to see how much modern slang slipped into my historical fiction. Turns out people didn’t run “flat out” back in the 17th century, and when they looked closely at something they didn’t “scope” it (even though microscopes were invented in the late 1500s). And nobody “yucked it up.” Most of the archaic words were easy to find and easy to substitute. And I admit that sometimes I kept 18th century words because I liked them too much to change them. But there was one word I didn’t resolve until days before Cast Off went to the printer:
Ahoy. As in, the term sailors use to greet each other or to hail another ship. It’s a pretty important word when you’re writing a book that takes place at sea.
I first questioned “ahoy” early in the revision process. One day I wondered whether it’s one of those words we all think everybody used to say back in the olden days, but in fact nobody ever did say. Like pirates and “arrrgh!” Pirates, I’m sorry to report, never did say “arrrgh,” and they didn’t make people walk the plank either. When a pirate wanted to kill someone, he’d just push the person overboard or stab him or shoot him.
But I digress.
First I checked Wikipedia. I like Wikipedia. It’s a good launch pad for research and the footnotes can be really helpful. I use it for quick answers and I always double or triple check important stuff. In its entry for “ahoy” Wikipedia mentions another term that means the same thing: “hoay.” “Hoay” – what a great word! Definitely sounds long ago and foreign. I loved it immediately. Way more than “ahoy,” which feels cliché and cartoony. I was so excited about “hoay” that I told myself it didn’t matter that I could only find one reference to the word on all of the Internet and that reference was in Wikipedia.
But I admit, “hoay” nagged at me. As much as I wanted to use it, I wasn’t convinced that it was legitimate. And neither was my copyeditor.
Cut to the night AFTER I turned in the final edits on the Cast Off galley. It’s past midnight and there I am, staring at “hoay,” feeling like an intellectually lightweight fraud. In desperation I paid $30 for a one-month subscription to the Oxford English Dictionary, the ultimate etymological authority. I plugged in my search terms, held my breath, waited… and there it was: hoay!
I found it under the entry for “hoy”:
“In nautical language (also written hoay) used in hailing or calling aloft.”
Wahoo! Hoay exists! The OED legitimized it! I can use it in Cast Off! Time for a victory dance, right?
Not quite. Because it turned out the OED got its information on “hoay” from the same single reference I’d already found on Wikipedia: a Scottish poet/sailor named William Falconer who wrote a nautical dictionary in 1769. Here’s what Falconer said:
“If the master intends to give any order to the people in the main-top, he calls, Main-top, hoay! To which they answer, Holloa!”
Now what do I do? On the one hand, if a word is in the OED, I feel totally justified in using it. On the other hand, I was perfectly aware that until the nineteenth century there was no such thing as standardized spelling, so it’s entirely possible, even likely, that William Falconer was just spelling the word we think of as “ahoy” in his own unique 18th century fashion. (If you’re at all interested in how the English language became standardized, I urge you—beg you—to read The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester. It’s thrilling. No joke.)
It was then that I had a vision: The wind is blowing; the sea is churning; and William Falconer is standing on the deck of an East Indiaman, listening to the bosun hail the crew. First the bosun cries, “All hands ahoy! All hands ahoy!” And then he shouts, “All hands hoay! All hands hoay!”
“Hoay” is just way better, don’t you think?