Hail - hale

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Hail and hale form a pair of homophones which should be distinguished. Both have several meanings listed in OED, of which the more important to most students are listed here. Confusingly, the (obsolete) adjectival meaning of hail is listed as being an alternative spelling of hale.

  • Hail exists as noun and verb, with one obsolete adjective (see above). The first is the idea of 'a greeting'. You will rarely today hear someone say "Hail!" instead of "Hi!" or "Hello!", but it was a common way of greeting someone in Shakespeare's day. (Its etymology is that it is a Northern, and Scottish, spelling of 'whole', or 'healthy, and thus is closely related to hale.)
    • It exists as both noun and verb, as well as in the original form of an interjection, in the sense of 'Greeting'. In former times (and, jocularly, sometimes today) it was used much as 'Hello' is today. So Shakespeare writes that the witches hailed Macbeth as Thane of Cawdor - i.e. they greeted him using that title. In a similar way, the noun means 'a greeting'.
    • A verb derived from that meaning is used of ships speaking to each other at sea, mostly in the days before wireless when it implied 'shouting loudly'. So it is now sometimes used figuratively in a jocular way.
    • Ships, again, are said to hail from their home port. This too has been adopted figuratively, and we can say that a person 'hails from' her or his birthplace, or (less usually) her or his residence.
    • A 'hail-fellow-well-met' person, or manner, is one that is friendly and out-going, with a frequent implication of excessive familiarity or cheerfulness. The greeting "Hail, fellow; well met!" is occasionally to be heard in jocular academic contexts. (It is never to be spelled as 'hale fellow well met'.)
  • Hail is also a form of weather, consisting of frozen pellets, or small balls, of water which fall from the sky. They are hard, and more like ice than snow. Again, it can be used both as a non-count noun and a verb. We can say "Hail fell" or "it hailed."
  • Hale is basically the adjective mentioned above which means 'whole' or 'healthy'. It is now used largely in a cliched doublet 'hale and hearty', meaning 'very well'. This jocular use is to be avoided in academic writing.
    • An obsolete noun meant 'health'.
    • A verb used at sea meant 'to haul', and can today be seen in the noun 'halyard', meaning a rope used to haul a spar, originally the yard of a square sail, or a sail up a mast in a sailing boat.