It’s one of those things that you say all the time but maybe you’ve never sat to think about where it came from. Well, that’s us. The people who sit and think too hard about things and then maybe make other people think about those things. Also known as trivia. Alright then, what’s the big deal anyway? Why do we say goodbye to other people?
Alright you might think this is some boomer stuff complaining about how kids these days aren’t understandable with their textspeak. But we promise it’s actually pretty relevant. No seriously, you should recolor your entire perception of the word “goodbye” in the terms of finding weird ways to shorten sentences.
But for starters textspeak. Wikipedia calls it SMS language. When text messaging first became a thing, people were only able to send messages in 160 character chunks. It was also common for individual texts to have fees associated with them–both for sending and receiving. SMS also came about when mobile phones didn’t all have full keyboards, using those 9 button keypads.
The long short is that people wanted to convey as much information in as few texts as possible. If not because it was actually just more expensive, then because those stupid 9 button keypads are inconvenient to type on. Thus, we tried to get more efficient. “You” got shortened to “u,” you know the rest.
Oh, and there are some arguments in favor of textspeak! We figured we’d mention it because there used to be a common stigma against it. For starters, people use textspeak far less than we might assume. In 2008, only like 10% of messages were actually abbreviated. Plus, textspeak is associated with increased literacy–it broadly reduces the barrier to learning language.
Both kids and adults use abbreviations anyway. If we assume that the average American adult is at least as if not more literate than an 8 year old with an iPad, then text abbreviations are at least not an indicator of relative illiteracy. Even if it’s annoying to linguistic purists.
Alright, But SMS is New
You’re right, SMS didn’t emerge until the 1990s. But we’ve been trying to be efficient with language since before SMS anyway. That’s right, we got the telegram from about 100 years ago. We had abbreviations for that too. Honestly, we have the concept of telegraphy as a whole. Which is broadly long distance communication by text. The optical telegraph dates back to, at least, the 18th century when a version was developed by Claude Chappe and entered widespread use.
Telegraphy really just relates to any kind of signaling, though. Which means messages passed through lit fires and drum beating also count. Which means telegraphic practices date at least as far back as 4th Century BC with Roman military campaigns. The Han Dynasty developed a system of flags, lights, and gunshots between 200 BC and 220 AD for such abbreviated communication. As technology developed new things were added to the mix, like artillery shells during the Ming Dynasty.
The point is, we have always been finding ways to shorten language in the most efficient ways possible. As technology developed we gained more efficient ways to send more complicated messages, ultimately limited by whatever was contemporary at the time.
You can imagine that even if the practices were born out of pragmatism, we’d still use them casually.
God Be With Ye
So we come to the linguistic contraction. Which is a means by which we can avoid saying or writing syllables. You know, like saying “I’m” instead of “I am.”
Let’s go back in time for a bit, when western society knew a far stronger church. The Christian one, in case you were wondering.
It was common to bless people when parting with them, so instead of saying “see you later,” it was super common to say “God be with ye” instead.
But that’s a lot of syllables and letters, so of course we shortened it. Somewhere between 1565 and 1575, we shortened “God be with ye” to “Godbwye” in writing. Here’s the generally agreed upon earliest record we have of the contraction in writing:
“To requite your gallonde of godbwyes, I regive you a pottle of howdyes.” ~Gabriel Harvey, 1573
Eventually society became more secular, and the word “God” began getting substituted with the word “good.” Then we dropped the “w” because it’s weird.
So you could argue that “goodbye” means “good be with you.”
Just in case you wanted to say “goodbye” in more than just English, test yourself here.