The Origins of 'Hella'

The Origins of 'Hella'

How is it that “hella” became synonymous with the Bay?

Ventura's question was inspired by his college days at UC Davis.

"L.A. folks would [home] in on it right away and be like, 'Oh you're from the Bay Area?' " he says. "I never really thought of it, I just thought everyone said hella."


Hella: A Linguistic Boundary

Many Bay Area residents and Californians believe that hella — and its G-rated equivalent "hecka" — are Bay Area slang. The words, which mean "very" or "a lot of," can be used in multiple ways. You can say “I’m hella stoked" or "There were hella people at that party last night,” or even, “I was doing it for hella days.”

Mary Bucholtz, a linguist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, conducted a study in which people indicated their perceptions of how people talk in certain areas of California.

Hella was the most frequently cited word, and 78.4 percent of the people who mentioned it in the study said it was Northern California slang.

“For Southern Californians in particular, hella represents a crucial shibboleth separating the two major regions of the state,” says Bucholtz.

That's true for Southern California transplant Bree DeRobbio, now living in San Jose. She remembers the first time she heard someone say hella.

“My reaction was 'Oh my God, they really do say it.' And I was amazed at all the different applications the word has,” she says.


From Oakland Teens to the Rest of the World

UC Berkeley linguist Geoff Nunberg traces hella back a few more years, to Oakland, from two early citations in a 1987 dissertation of a Berkeley student.

“Hella emerged somewhere in Northern California around the late 1970s, and although it spread to other places, it’s still associated with this region,” says Nunberg.

Historically, slang spreads from black English to white English and not in the other direction, which is why Nunberg says he suspects it started in Oakland.

Phrases like "cool" and "tell it like it is" are good examples.

“ 'Cool' was adopted by white hipsters and beatniks in the early ‘50s before spreading to teen slang. 'Tell it like it is' was used by black writers in the early ’60s and quickly became part of general white English,” he says.



Hella Now

Since those early days, the widespread use of hell of, hellacious and helluva has dwindled — leaving hella to stand alone.

Hella got a national audience in the South Park episode "Spookyfish," from the second season.

Cartman taunts Stan and Kyle by singing, “You guys are hella stupid, you guys are hella lame, you guys are hella dumb hella, hella, hella.”

The word may be one of Northern California's most notorious cultural exports.

You’re welcome, world.


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