Meaning of Old Norse ‘Heill’ in Greetings

Written by Dyami Millarson

Norse greetings are usually introduced with the adjective heill. In Dutch, the expression heel aankomen exists, which may be translated as to get there in one piece; to arrive somewhere uninjured. The Dutch adjective heel is apparemtly related to Old Norse heill, and the Dutch adjective is nowadays generally understood as meaning whole, complete, undivided.

The Dutch adjective heilzaam means healthy and is related to English wholesome. The English adjective whole, which is related to Dutch heel and Old Norse heill, means not only complete, undivided but also healthy, uninjured (of course, these two meanings may be regarded as overlapping). The latter is the meaning which is used in the invocations of Germanic prayers.

The Germanic peoples apparently wished each other good health as part of a fossilised expression of a good luck wish during the greeting ritual. The Romans, when they said salvē/avē to a single person or salvēte/avēte to a group of people, greeted each other by wishing each other good health as well.

The modern Germanic greetings of hallo in German, Dutch, Frisian and Afrikaans as well as hello and hi in English are generally regarded as etymologically unrelated, at least on the surface, to heill, heel and whole, as etymologically tempting as it may be to directly connect them; yet, perhaps, an underlying etymological contamination with the earlier Germanic greeting may not be ruled out as both consist of h-l, while it might seem strange to attribute the the modern greeting exhibiting h-l as well to pure chance and folk etymology, arising from confusion of etymologically unrelated words, seems at play here. The earlier greeting may simply have been replaced by another word as people started to forget the original meaning of the greeting – or another possibility is that the magico-religious connotations of the greeting were regarded as too pagan and therefore it could have been purposefully obscured by another word, by means of folk etymology, to do away with the old magico-religious connotations.

If society had stayed fully pagan in Northwestern Europe, we can expect the old tradition of salutation with the adjective ‘whole’ to have continued indefinitely due to cultural and magico-religious importance. However, the culture and religion changed in the Early Middle Ages and so the pristine culture and folk religion of the Germanic ancestors came to be covered with a layer of soil, only to be dug up in modern times while we seek to find old treasures.

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