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Macmillan dictionary says hail from is "formal".

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Cambridge dictionary notes hail from as "formal" in British English but doesn't say this for American English.

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Oxford Learners dictionary (American English) says hail from is formal. link

Oxford dictionary doesn't stipulate. link

The OED does not mark the phrasal verb as formal–or archaic (contra the well-received comment to this post).

So is hail from actually or even necessarily formal, in some or any dialects of English? And again: How are we to characterize this word for, say, non-native speakers of English?

I had the idea it was colloquial/informal (in American English), as in something Mark Twain would say. My understanding is not necessarily correct.

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    I would call it archaic or humorous, not formal or informal; but also I am a Canadian, not a Brit or an American. – Anonym Apr 3 '16 at 4:30
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    I have no idea how to read those charts @snailboat, what importance to put to them, or what you would have me think about the verb in question by posting the links. – Alan Carmack Apr 3 '16 at 14:17
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    @guifa This is my thought, exactly, with regard to American English It sounds folksy. Could it be that the same phrase could be considered both decidedly formal and decidedly informal? – Alan Carmack Apr 3 '16 at 16:12
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    I dunno why @Josh61 would remove his answer, as it did contain helpful data from AmE sources. Plus Peter Shor's Ngram link was helpful. – Alan Carmack Apr 3 '16 at 16:27
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Specifics: I can find no evidence whatever that ‘hails from’ is ‘necessarily formal’ in any particular form of words, in any instance of English anywhere. That does not mean that it does not figure in some process somewhere (maybe English-speakers getting mortgages in Bangalore have to use this term in declaring where they are from), but it does not indicate a conventional change to a formal register.

‘Hails from’ is commonly applied to people and their backgrounds, but it can legitimately refer to the relevant or influential origin of anything.

In my experience, ‘hails from’ signals that someone’s identity and/or character is in some sense derived from that place. It is much stronger than ‘comes from’, which could mean no more than ‘is currently camping in’.

To me (long-term student of many Englishes, and UK inhabitant) the expression ‘hails from’ in that sense feels comfortably traditional, rather than archaic. With that in mind I wondered whether I might find it in Tolkien, so I went hunting online.

This delivered no direct quotes from the Lord of the Rings books (I bet it’s there!), but unexpectedly it revealed a calmly consistent and current usage across many websites indicating the general sense of influential or notable personal history that I had in mind.

Examples...

The emerging central point seems to be that coming from somewhere can be a simple matter of convenience or historical accident. Hailing from somewhere contributes (however unspecifically) to defining you... otherwise you wouldn’t phrase it like that. We don’t know why Mirkwood is relevant to Legolas being ‘valiant’ and ‘a great archer’, but we have the impression that it has been somehow conducive to those qualities. We don’t know exactly why Acevedo doesn’t simply say he lives in LA and has done for ages, but for some reason he is also careful to let us know that he hails from Arizona.

Discussion:

In the absence of positive evidence of formality...

The designation ‘formal’ is probably misleading here, implying that ‘hails from’ introduces some kind of ceremonial significance to conversation in British English. It has no such general cultural weight, that I am aware of. In this kind of case, ‘formal’ seems to mean that everyone understands it but would normally say something more vaguely casual.

Of course there may well be established forms of words where it is used as a matter of form and habit (perhaps the Best Man conventionally ‘hails from’ somewhere in certain wedding formats), but ‘hails from’ does not automatically signal any specifically formal approach or tone (with a proviso for exaggeration or irony, below).

On the other hand, ‘hails from’ does have a generally weightier significance than ‘comes from’.

Someone introducing me could reasonably say any of the following, as a general way of helping people to get an initial handle on me:

  • ‘He comes from London’ (because that was where I was born)

  • ‘He comes from Bristol’ (because that was where I went to school and grew up)

  • ‘He comes from St Andrews’ (because that was where I first studied, got married, and lived for a while)

  • ‘He comes from Milton Keynes’ (because that is where I currently live)

The third of those is a bit of a stretch, but it has happened, and any of them could be adopted to give a given group an appropriately helpful perspective.

Hails from, however, conveys a much stronger and more singular sense of belonging and connection. If you tell people that I hail from somewhere, you are telling them that I emphatically bring with me something of that place rather than any other, as part of my character.

If you say of someone, ‘He comes from Yorkshire,’ you basically just convey that that gives us something to talk about (birth, study, whatever). It might be gigantically significant (‘He comes from Mars’ works fine), but it need not be at all.

If you say, ‘He hails from Yorkshire,’ you are saying (whether or not you intend to) that that is an active part of this man’s identity. That heritage is going to form a noticeable part of how he interacts with us.

The proviso... Humorous use of ‘hails from’ is possible, making it seem more generally formal than it is, comparable to someone shouting ‘Greetings!’ when you enter a pub. (That, too is ‘formal’ in the sense that it is transparently understood but not commonly used. It sounds a bit like something for special occasions.) In such an atmosphere, saying that someone hails from Wootton Bassett is tantamount to saying that this by-the-way formality is frankly unimportant, and now that we have it out of the way we should forget it and get on with drinking.

Also... ‘Hails from’ need not refer to individual human background, although that is the sense in which we usually encounter it. For example, Thomas Hardy's poem ‘The Fiddler’ includes the line ‘Music hails from the devil’ (in describing the fiddler's function of driving a devout wedding ceremony to debauchery).

  • Very thorough. In America, I often hear this term from sportscasters, especially college. Also from game show hosts--I would hardly say formal. But still it seems a little type-cast, perhaps only because of specific examples within American culture. – Stu W Apr 9 '16 at 21:28
  • I appreciate the answer. As a native speaker of American English, I would reject your point that hails from’ does have a generally weightier significance than ‘comes from’. I think you are reading something into hails from (as opposed to comes from). If I say I come from Texas and this is the way I'm used to doing things, this has the same meaning you intend for hails from. – Alan Carmack Apr 10 '16 at 12:26
  • Also I can't but think of the song lyric I come from Alabama with a banjo on my knee (from 'O, Susannah'), which also includes (in some versions) I said I come from dixieland, Susannah don't you cry! Seems a perfect time to use hail from both due to the 'weightier significance' you feel it has, but that I don't. Also the use of come from also points, in this, case to hail from perhaps sounding too formal for the setting (but not because of the import you give to the expression). – Alan Carmack Apr 10 '16 at 12:36
  • @AlanCarmack I completely agree with you. I am claiming, proposing or just noticing that 'hails from' comes with something of that built-in. As you say, you might declare,: 'I come from Texas and this is the way I'm used to doing things.' You could get exactly the same effect by staring at someone across the sawbench and saying, 'Well, I hail from Texas.' And, anyway, 'I come from Texas' could legitimately mean that that is where your tent currently is, or you are currently studying there. I wouldn't expect to hear 'hail from' used like that. – Captain Cranium Apr 10 '16 at 12:37
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    @AlanCarmack - Stephen Foster was a child of the American heartland of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and points south. He would not have come into much contact with people from the Eastern Seaboard where "hail" would be more apt to be idiomatic, and even if he were familiar with the word, he would have avoided using it, as it was not idiomatic for the Southern dialects which he chose to mimic. – Hot Licks Apr 11 '16 at 20:28
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According to the 1847 Constitution of Liberia (as quoted in 1850 US senate documents):

Article 1. Sec. 2 It is further enacted, That all vessels hailing from ports, and sailing under the flag of this Republic, are hereby prohibited from any and every species of intercourse with slavers, at sea and elsewhere...

So it is formal enough to be used in a country's constitution.

  • In 1850, when referring to sailing vessels. In the same document which uses "intercourse" to mean "interaction". I think standards may have changed. – Hot Licks Apr 11 '16 at 20:11
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    @HotLicks sure, but the OP says "I had the idea it was colloquial/informal (in American English), as in something Mark Twain would say". So it was not slang in the Mark Twain era, it was suitable to use in formal writing. – DavePhD Apr 11 '16 at 20:16
  • Saying a boat "hails from" some port is nautical jargon. Saying that some person "hails from" some (possibly land-locked) country in Eastern Europe is metaphor. – Hot Licks Apr 11 '16 at 20:21
  • @HotLicks "To call; to call to a person at a distance, to arrest his attention. It is properly used in any case where the person accosted is distant, but is appropriately used by seamen. Hoa or hoi, the ship ahoay, is the usual manner of hailing; to which the answer is holloa, or hollo. Then follow the usual questions, whence came ye? where are you bound? etc." webstersdictionary1828.com/Dictionary/hail – DavePhD Apr 11 '16 at 20:36
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    No, it isn't necessarily formal. – DavePhD Apr 11 '16 at 23:14

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