Why do Czechs say 'ahoj'? An oddly nautical greeting for a landlocked country

The history behind the Czech "hello," plus another informal greeting, "nazdar," celebrates an anniversary this month.

Marcus Bradshaw

Written by Marcus Bradshaw
Published on 28.04.2021 13:52 (updated on 28.04.2021)

Ahoj is an informal greeting used in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, both when welcoming and saying goodbye. Etymologists at the Czech Language Institute believe the word entered Czech from the English “hoy”: a word originally used by seafarers. The word was used as a naval exclamation, used to attract the attention of, or warn, fellow crew members, or as a general greeting. 

Of course, the Czech Republic is landlocked, and no one is quite sure how the term got here, but there are competing theories. Some believe that Czech boatmen brought it up the river with them from Hamburg, whereas others believe that recreational paddlers helped to spread this naval salutation through the countryside. 

Meanwhile, others have claimed that the word originates in some rather spurious acronyms, from the religious Latin “Ad honorem Jesu” (for the honour of Jesus) or to the political “Adolfa Hitlera oběsíme jistě'' (we will surely hang Adolf Hitler).

The Institute of the Czech Language doesn’t state a position on how it got here, but writes that in the mid part of the 20th century, it was being used by “hikers, scouts, athletes and young people”. Non-Czech speakers would do well to note that ahoj is reserved for the most informal of settings or with young people – do not use it with your boss or the nice old lady next door!

Its watery connections are still very much in evidence: visit any Czech river during the summer, and you will find flotillas of rafters and canoeists, gleefully calling “ahoj!” to all and sundry. For observers who are more familiar with reticent "dobrý den", both from strangers and long-term acquaintances alike, the casual way in which ahoj is shouted about can come as a surprise. However, once the paddlers are back on terra firma, they almost  immediately revert to staid formalities.

Ahoj has successfully spread from Bohemia’s rivers to Czech society as a whole, but had the inventor of the telephone gotten his way, it could have caught on internationally. Alexander Graham Bell suggested that “Ahoy-hoy'' should be adopted as the standard way of answering the telephone (fans of The Simpsons might recall that is how Montgomery Burns answers the phone), but ultimately a simple “hello”, favoured by Thomas Edison, won out.

Another informal greeting in common use is nazdar. Literally translated as “to the success”, the term can be traced back to a specific date, 14 April 1851, which marked the beginning of the fundraising effort to build the National Theatre in Prague. Collection boxes emblazoned with the slogan Na zdar Národního divadla (the success of the National Theatre) appeared throughout Bohemia, and soon the term “na zdar” entered the parlance of patriotically-minded Czechs.

Nazdar was later adopted by the Czech scouts movement, and has also been formally adopted by the Czech military. Czech soldiers on inspection salute to the call of “Vojáci, nazdar!”, to which they respond “zdar!”. Many Czech children will have a similar memory of gym class, with the PE teacher shouting “zdar!”, and the students, enthusiastically or otherwise, rejoining with “nazdar!”.

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