Hail-Fellow-Well-Met – What Does Hail Fellow Well Met Mean

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I 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.

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If the expression sounds archaic or old-fashioned to you, you’d be right – it dates to the sixteenth century at least.

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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’.

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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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