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I know it was a sort of archaic greeting, but I don't know how to interpret the actual words.

I had a foggy idea that it meant "It is good that we met here and now", but even then, "well met" is not the intuitive way to say this.

Does anyone know why "well met" was used to express greeting?

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6 Answers

up vote 2 down vote accepted

Wikipedia offers a succinct explanation:

"Hail fellow well met" is a somewhat archaic English idiom used either as an exaggerated greeting or referring to a person who is sociable and constantly making an effort to win friends. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) gives a 1589 quotation for this phrase as a friendly greeting. The OED also gives quotations for the related phrase "hail fellow", a greeting that apparently dates to medieval times. "Well met" appears to have been added to the phrase in the 16th century to intensify its friendliness. This additional term seems to derive from the concept of "good to meet you", and also from the meaning of "meet" as something literally the right size for a given situation.

Further, Merriam Webster identifies the word hail-fellow-well-met as an adjective to mean "heartily friendly and informal".

As the graphs below indicate, there are some interesting relatively inverse correlations between American and British English usage, particularly from 1830 to 1840, 1900 - 1920 and 1950 - 1960. Both graphs indicate that the phrase (or word) is no longer commonly used.

American English usage: Hail Fellow Well Met, American English Usage

British English usage: Hail Fellow Well Met, British English Usage

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Where are these graphs from? –  intuited Jul 22 '11 at 0:54
    
@intuited Google ngrams –  HaL Jul 22 '11 at 1:40
    
Awesome! Thanks! –  intuited Jul 22 '11 at 14:04
    
omg graphs, this must be legit +1 –  cpac May 1 at 22:35
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Well-met does show up in some dictionaries:

adjective Archaic. (used as a salutation or part of a salutation). ...Origin: 1580-90.

Hail-fellow-well-met can be traced back to the same time:

1580s, from a familiar greeting

as @HaL's answer explains further.

As for "Well met," it's used as a greeting in writing at least through the early 1900s - L. Frank Baum uses it, for example. (In this case it's used as a greeting to a new person - as today we would use nice to meet you. I think later examples may have that meaning more than earlier ones, but I am not sure.)

"Well met, Stranger!" cried the Patchwork Girl with a whoop of laughter. "You are quite the funniest individual I have seen in all my travels."

Readings from Lectures to working men, Rev. Arthur Mursell, ~1867, indicates that the phrase meant something like good to see you, but perhaps was not one all speakers would use:

WELL met! There is an air of jollity about the ring of these two words which sounds brotherly and hearty. But, like a great many other very nice phrases, they have become connected with unpleasant associations. We can scarcely help thinking of the tap-room the moment these words are spoken.

Going back further, Shakespeare uses "well met" liberally, for example:

—Well met, honest gentlemen.
—By my troth, well met; Come, sit, sit, and a song.

—You are well met once again.
—And so are you.

as a "kind of salutation" (clip from a Shakespeare dictionary that cross-references where words and phrases occur):

Used in the partic. joined with an adverb as a kind of salutation: you are well met - clip of Schmidt Shakespeare lexicon for 'met'

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You've pretty much got the sense of it. Think of it as the result of somebody dropping most of the words out of the phrase "it is well that we have met". (It's not modern practice to recognize the verb "to be" as calling for the adverb "well" here, but the sense of it is still clear.)

What doesn't come across in the modern language is that there's an almost congratulatory tone to it; the meeting is being spoken of in the sense of an active verb, and the person greeted being complimented on it, so there's an implication that the actions that led to the meeting are approved of.

The contrary sentiment, "ill met", goes the same way; in addition to saying "I could've lived without seeing you", there's an implication of "what you were doing that leads to this meeting is bad".

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It is a saying much like "Hello, nice to meet you." It is a courtesy given as an acknowlegement of a social custom of greeting. Generally used after a third party introduction though its use is not common in the US.

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I understand it not just as a greeting, but as a remark about a particular kind of meeting --

capable, equal to a challenge This is an old expression dating back to the 16th century. The descriptive phrase “well-met,” 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. Example: In swordsmanship he is well met for any foe. Both parties are well met for a successful marriage.

taken from hickcrazy1 at yahoo answers

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Could it be as old as from Viking age? We still stay that sometimes in the Nordic countries: Väl mött. Often used when announcing a meeting; it will be good to see you all and we will have a good meeting.

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This is not an answer. If you wish to ask a question, you should follow the "Ask Question" link at the top of the page. If you wish to comment on a question or answer, there are "add comment" links to do so. For what it's worth, both well / Väl and met / mött are much older than the Viking age, going back to the common ancestor languages of both English and the Nordic languages. –  Jon Hanna Feb 12 at 15:13
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