A column for scrappy students

An Ode to "Hella"

Lately the Northern Californian slang word hella has been in the news, thanks to a well-publicized Facebook petition to make it the official prefix for 10 to the 27th power. Here we present a first-hand account of the cultural significance of hella from Samantha Strimling, a young journalist about to graduate from Piedmont High School in the San Francisco Bay area. We were pleased to make Samantha's acquaintance at a recent Visual Thesaurus presentation to the Columbia Scholastic Press Association.

Forty-one teenagers from all over the United States are packed onto a 747 heading back from Israel, and the main source of turbulence is mixed emotions. We want to savor the moment, as this is probably the last time we will all be together, probably forever. On the other hand, though, after six weeks abroad, we are excited to come home. Some miss their mom's cooking. Some miss their local mall. Me? I miss the way hella rolls off the tongues of people where I am from.

There are two kinds of California. There is the one that your roommate pictures when you tell her you are from California. Women with lines on their faces from bad plastic surgery jobs. Surfer boys with blue eyes that match the waves. Sun-bleached blond hair like a mop, perched contently on a tan body. The big "HOLLYWOOD" sign in the background... And then there is Hella California.

Hella means "very" ("I'm hella awesome") or "a lot" ("I've got hella friends"), and occasionally it is even inserted randomly and nonsensically into sentences to give emphasis when a little oomph seems needed ("Do you want to go to the party?" "Hella!"). And, to be hella succinct, the word says a lot about the laid-back yet intensely proud individuals that say it.

Like true Californians, People Who Say Hella do not own winter jackets, but they can also complete this Mark Twain quote: "The coldest winter I ever spent was..." ("the summer in San Francisco," for all you non-hella sayers.) People Who Say Hella includes people of all races and genders, including ones that only exist in Berkeley. People Who Say Hella know what it means to eat fresh produce. People Who Say Hella ride their bikes everywhere and more than a few never get their licenses in high school. People Who Say Hella know not to drive through San Francisco (or ride on BART) during one of the biggest celebrations of the year: Love Fest. In fact, People Who Say Hella know to avoid BART whenever possible and, for all their pride and neglect of cars, freely complain about lack of decent public transit.

The People Who Say Hella are largely of the younger variety. Their parents were probably Dead Heads and/or went to UC Berkeley ("Cal" in Hella California) when it was still radical, only to settle down and become family psychologists. People Who Say Hella think "hippie" is synonymous with tie dye, which they think is synonymous with Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. People Who Say Hella choose to ignore (or delight in) the irony of living in a leafy suburb while simultaneously embracing "the hyphy movement," which involves scandalous dancing to racy rap songs about activities that might shock their families.

People Who Say Hella have strong, often contradictory points of view. Emphatic conversations peppered with hellas abound in the Bay Area and cover topics as diverse as the people who say it. Yet they all have one thing in common: the enthusiasm that emanates from that word that rolls off the tongue and tastes of the salty air by the San Francisco Bay.

For more on the hella- prefix campaign, see the recent column by Visual Thesaurus contributor Mark Peters in Good Magazine, "Hella Gets Huge."

Samantha Strimling is a proud, life-long resident of the San Francisco Bay Area. She enjoys biking everywhere and baking delectable deserts and breads for every occasion. Throughout high school, she also participated in various Jewish youth groups and swam for her high school and local club teams. She currently writes for her school newspaper at Piedmont High School, The Piedmont Highlander. She will graduate this month, and in the fall she will continue to uphold the Bay Area spirit at the University of California, Berkeley. There she plans to major in philosophy and write for the college newspaper, The Daily Californian.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday June 9th 2010, 1:53 PM
Comment by: Roberta M. (Redmond, WA)
My only response is 'alotta'.
Wednesday June 9th 2010, 1:58 PM
Comment by: Roberta M. (Redmond, WA)
Maybe I should have said 'volatta'. It could be the response to 'Hella' as a greeting: "Hey there, hella!" Response "Volatta to you, too!"
Thursday June 10th 2010, 9:24 AM
Comment by: BigCat84 (Freetown Sierra Leone)
Pardon, but "hella" has been used in the African American community - throughout the U.S. for the last 40 years....perhaps the author just doesn't realize the trickle down aspects of language. I was born in New Jersey in the early 1960's and my oldest brother even used that term and he was born in 1948. "Hella" is sumpin sumpin, but it is not endemic to California, nor to the young folk of today....
Thursday June 10th 2010, 11:39 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
BigCat84 may well be right about the roots of hella. In a paper entitled "Word Up: Social Meanings of Slang in California Youth Culture," the Berkeley sociolinguist Mary Bucholtz writes of the word's "probable origins among African American speakers." I've seen anecdotal reports of hella usage going back to the '70s, but the earliest known printed appearance as recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1987.
Monday May 2nd 2011, 1:21 PM
Comment by: Travis (apopka, FL)
Tuesday January 24th 2012, 6:04 AM
Comment by: El (Los Angeles, CA)
Thanks for the correction BigCat84. All this time I thought my friends were saying "holla". I laughed at me as I read your correction.

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