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Having had my formative years in New Zealand, I was born in South Africa. I vaguely recall when I was VERY young having someone tell me when I said "hey" that "hay is what horses eat".

I got that then it was more when people would yell "hey" across a room to attract attention, and that was considered a bit rude for that purpose.

However in my adult years in NZ and the UK, a casual nod and a "hey", or "hey, what's up?" was a perfectly acceptable greeting.

Having recently moved to Canada, I greeted someone casually with that yesterday to be told again "that's what horses eat". I felt a bit rebuffed, but decided to ignore it until I could research it - ie, ask on here!.

Is this just a North American thing? Or just possibly this individual's view? Same age and gender as me.

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I'm Canadian and I say 'hey' all the time. It's a more casual, familiar form of 'hi.' I've heard "hay is for horses" but have never had anyone apply it to me when greeting them informally! –  JAM Jul 20 '12 at 3:03
    
youtube.com/watch?v=yuFI5KSPAt4 –  Vorac Jul 20 '12 at 9:58
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'Hey, is for horses' is a complete non-sequitur. It can be used as either a pithy bon mot to jostle a friend, or a snide comment to completely distract and put off a mere acquaintance. Any reasonable person who is non-confrontational and relatively interested in the conversation will more than likely never say it unless you know them well. –  Geoist Jul 20 '12 at 11:05
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The person that said that back to you was either 1. being facetious, or 2. has an irrationally stubborn refusal to accept "hey" as a standard part of modern English. Either 1. laugh with them at their "cute" jest or 2. ignore them. –  Michael Edenfield Jul 20 '12 at 14:08
    
@Michael Edenfield: I think back in 1738 when Jonathon Swift wrote the first recorded instance as a riposte, it would be in response to "Hey" used as a casual/vulgar/insulting way of grabbing someone's attention. Akin to Oi, you! in modern BrE, but I don't think there even is a modern American equivalent. But I doubt many/any Americans (or Canadians) really object to "Hey" instead of "Hello" - so effectively for them it's a "cute" joke that falls flat if you look at it too closely (it still works for us aitch-dropping Cockneys, though! :) –  FumbleFingers Jul 25 '12 at 11:51

5 Answers 5

Pretty much the only time I remember hearing "Hay is for horses" intended as an actual admonition, as opposed to a lighthearted and humorous response, was in elementary school. I think our teachers used the phrase to remind us that "Hey, Mrs. Johnson" was an inapproriately informal way to get a teacher's attention – that we should try something like, "Excuse me, Mrs. Johnson" instead.

So many people heard that refrain growing up, though, that I've heard it get tossed out reflexively every now and then.

As for what message the person you greeted was trying to send, it's hard to say for certain. I think some people respond to "Hey" that way in an attempt to sound witty, while others may have misinterpreted our lesson from childhood to mean: using "hey" when addressing someone is always rude. In the former case, I don't think anything so trite ever comes off as very humorous; in the latter, it's professing ignorance for language, since the word isn't inherently rude, and isn't even spelled the same as its cow-feed homophone.

For the record, NOAD even lists "hello" among the word's definitions:

enter image description here

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You're mixing up two different "Heys" (or the Canadian you greeted is).

The reprimand "'ay is for 'orses" is/was supposed to teach you to say "Pardon?" instead of "Eh?" if you hadn't heard something, and wanted it to be repeated.

The modern American "greeting" "Hey" is really just a variant of "Hi", "Hello", etc. Which is only vaguely related to the long-standing "Hey!" variant of "Hoi!", "Ho there!", etc., used as an interjection, or a means of attracting attention.

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Ah yes. However, He certainly seemed to think it was that "for horses one". –  Mark Mayo Jul 20 '12 at 3:14
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I'm Canadian, and I've never heard of "for horses" being used in the context of "eh?". I have, however, been subjected to many a "for horses" whenever I would "Hey" someone. You're clearly mistaken in stating that the "for horses" is supposed to reprimand you for saying "Eh?" alone. –  Geoist Jul 20 '12 at 11:09
    
@Geoist No. It was originally used in England to teach Cockney kids to say "pardon" or something similarly polite, rather than "eh". –  JamesHH Jul 20 '12 at 11:54
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Here in N America, since we never drop initial H's, it's less likely that "Eh" and "Hey" are confused. Probably the saying 'hay is for horses' came over the pond intact, but here it's used as a response to "Hey". I can attest to its use as an admonishment in the late '60s/early '70s USA. –  Mark Beadles Jul 20 '12 at 15:11
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Maybe in Canada, eh is for orses? –  CamelBlues Jul 20 '12 at 18:55

From an AmE speaker, 'hey' is perfectly fine in the US, people use it all the time.

I remember hearing that more than once as a child, "Hay is for horses." in response to 'hey'. It sounds like it was supposed to stop you from using 'hey' but it never did. It comes across more as a (not particularly successful) attempt at a clever saying.

It's not formal at all, but also not at all vulgar. Just plain informal.

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It's only "not particularly successful" for Americans/Canadians, who don't habitually drop their aitches, and who also don't tend to say "Eh?" instead of "Pardon? I didn't hear that." –  FumbleFingers Jul 25 '12 at 11:55
    
In AmE, 'pardon' sounds (to my native speaker's ears) not as common as 'excuse me? ...' or 'I'm sorry, ...'. Actually 'What?' though a bit blunt and nominally rude, just might be more common anyway. –  Mitch Jul 25 '12 at 13:45
    
I wasn't intending to get sidetracked into what alternatives people actually say in that context - "pardon" was shorter than "excuse me", and I figured most people would at least understand what context I meant. Which I thought might not be the case if I'd used that other common BrE alternative - "What?". –  FumbleFingers Jul 25 '12 at 14:02
    
@FumbleFingers: Sidetracked? Isn't that what comments are for? Or rather what answers are not. Anyway, comments are fair game. Where were we? –  Mitch Jul 25 '12 at 14:09
    
I think we've just established that Americans are just as likely as Brits to say "What?" here. Which doesn't derail my position as set out above. But I have set some store by the idea that Americans don't say "Eh?" very often, so I'll have to squirm a bit if you tell me they commonly say that too! –  FumbleFingers Jul 25 '12 at 14:23

I believe the negative response, "Hey(Hay) is for horses" is used to be a political ploy. I've seen it used to put down someone as if they were implying that its use is vulgar. A secondary put down might be "Hay? Are you calling me a horse, punk?"

Its used as a way of confusing the person offering the greeting and making them pause awkwardly and question their cultural up-bringing/identity. A good response back might be, "You're not from around here, are you buddy?"

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Both those quotes sound like something that Clint Eastwood would say. :) –  Darthfett Jul 20 '12 at 14:32
    
I have spent a lot of time watching Clint Eastwood. –  RetroCoder Jul 20 '12 at 19:04

There are several rhymes/sayings that start with "Hay is for horses", which have differing tones:

Hay is for horses, but cows eat it too. If you don't be quiet, I'll feed some to you.

Hay is for horses, straw is cheaper, grass is free, Hippies smoke it... why don't we!

Hay is for horses, grass is cheaper, straw is free, buy a farm and you get all three.

The first rhyme has more of a cautionary tone, but the second and third are more in jest/humor than anything else. The word "Hey" was used as an opportunity to use this rhyme in conversation.

I'm having trouble coming up with sources for the variants of the saying, so take this with a grain of salt.

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