Stupid Question ™
July 19, 2004
By John Ruch
Q: What is the origin of the descriptive phrase “hail-fellow-well-met”?
—Ron Sumner, from the Internet
A: This pet name for the chronically friendly is a combination of two warm, and now obsolete, greetings—now mostly relegated to fine Renaissance fairs around the nation.
“Hail, fellow!” was a medieval greeting. “Hail” was a Scottish pronunciation of “heal” (which also produced “hale”). At the time, a noun form of “heal” was current, and meant the same thing as our modern “health.” So, essentially, “Hail, fellow!” means, “Health to you, buddy!”
In the 1500s, we start to see “Hail, fellow!” turn into “hail-fellow,” a term for a close friend—that is, one with whom you would exchange this type of very friendly greeting.
Then we see “well-met” getting tacked onto the phrase. “Well met!” was another greeting of the time. It is generally taken to mean, literally, “Good to meet you!” There was also a descriptive phrase “well-met,” which had (and still has) connotations of suitability and propriety. It’s based on a different meaning of “meet,” an adjectival/adverbial usage indicating something is literally or figuratively the right size for a given situation.
In any case, “well-met” was tacked onto “hail-fellow” to create what the Oxford English Dictionary calls a “fuller phrase.” Basically, it served as intensifier to indicate even more friendliness. If someone was your hail-fellow-well-met in the late 1500s, he was a close friend.
I could find nothing that clarifies whether “Hail, fellow!” and “Well met!” were used to together before the coining of the descriptive “hail-fellow-well-met.” My pure guess is the modern, deliberately archaic use of “Hail, fellow! Well met!” by medieval-style performers and the like is a back-formation from the descriptive phrase.
Today, the greetings have faded and the descriptive “hail-fellow-well-met” survives as a sort of deliberately archaic term. It is mostly used to describe someone (almost always a man due to the “fellow” bit) who is easily and readily friendly. It often has connotations of insincerity; the most fitting use of the phrase in that vein I found during an Internet troll was a reference to the actor Tom Cruise.