“Hella” is more than just a five-letter word. It’s one of the Bay Area’s great cultural exports, along with the Beats, psychedelic rock, and the hyphy movement. The word transcends race, gender, sexuality, and class.
You can hear it nearly all over the Bay Area, from an East Bay high school cafeteria to a San Francisco start-up’s conference room. “Hella” has allowed our region to distinguish itself in a state of almost 40 million people, and in doing so it has earned us scorn from our southern counterparts. I grew up in Maryland, and when I first went to college down in LA, I was unwittingly caught in a war between my NorCal and SoCal peers, and “hella” was the battleground.
“Hella” has slipped out beyond NorCal, getting into the lingo of Pacific Northwesterners. Seattleites and Portlanders have told me that their hometowns have been mistaken as the birthplace of the word. I’ve heard “hella” casually used by midwesterners, New Englanders, and southerners.
Non-Bay Area rappers now use the word just as much as locals. Unlike other regional words such as “wicked” or “mad,” “hella” has enjoyed mass popularity from coast to coast due to its versatility and ability to roll off the tongue.
We’ve got you hella covered when it comes to knowing hella stuff about the word “hella.”
- The origin of “hella” is hella muddled and lacks a clear-cut path from conception to the present day. In researching this piece, I found people claiming in different forums and posts that it came out of Hayward in the 1930s, that South Park sparked its popularity, and that Hunters Point is its birthplace. The general consensus is that “hella” sprang to life in the East Bay some time between 1975 and 1981.
- It often takes the place of words like “really” or “very” or “a lot.” I’ve also witnessed the word being used as a replacement for the word “yes.” One time I saw a person at Chipotle who was asked if she wanted guacamole on her burrito, and in all seriousness, she replied, “Hella.”
- One of the first notable uses of “hella” outside of America came in 1987 when the Toronto Star used it in an article: “He released the catch on his reel, which began to whir like a movie camera as the horse wenthellawhoopin’ down the trail.”
- The G-rated version is “hecka.”
- In 1987 UCSB professor Mary Bucholtz commissioned the first academic study of the word and concluded that East Bay youth were its primary users and most likely its creators as well.
- It can be used in a million different ways. Its most common use is as a modifier, e.g., “This fog is hella thick” or “I’m hella tired after hiking Twin Peaks.”
- Oakland rapper and inventor of the term “hyphy” Keak da Sneak first used the word “hella” in 1996 in the track “Ring It.”
- In the US, 694 people have “Hella” as their first name and 235 have it as their last name.
- In 1998 the show South Park launched “hella” to a new level of fame when Cartman dropped the word often in the show’s Halloween-themed episode.
- The word has even gone so far as to become the name of a Sacramento experimental noise rock band that formed in 2001. They’ve released five albums and six EPs since then.
- Bay Area expert Max Chanowitz theorizes that “Hella is perhaps the most prominent example of a decades-old trend in the California accent/dialect: slurring cumbersome words and phrases together into fewer and fewer syllables.”
- Also in 2001, the band No Doubt (who, by the way, are from Anaheim) released a song titled “Hella Good.” This caused writer David Gentry to have a nervous breakdown: “I fear the worst: nationwide acceptance of this wretched term.”
- In 2010 a campaign led by a UC Davis student petitioned for “hella” to be SI prefix 10^27. That means one hellameter would be 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 meters. Even though the campaign was supported by such big names as Google, it ultimately failed; however, we should still try in our slang to say, “Dude, the Richmond is like a hellameter away from here.”
- According to Rap Genius, there are 15,288 hip-hop songs that include the word “hella.”