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'Hella' as used in Northern California

Hella is an American English slang term originating in and often associated with San Francisco's East Bay area in northern California, possibly specifically emerging in the 1970s African-American vernacular of Oakland.[1][2] It is used as an intensifying adverb such as in "hella bad" or "hella good". It was eventually added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2002, citing a 1987 first use in the Toronto Star.[2][3] It is possibly a contraction of the phrase "hell of a" or "hell of a lot [of]", in turn reduced to "hell of",[3] though some scholars doubt this etymology since its grammatical usage does not align with those phrases; or of "hellacious".[2] It often appears in place of the words "really", "a lot", "totally", "very", and in some cases, "yes". Whereas hell of a is generally used with a noun, according to linguist Pamela Munro, hella is primarily used to modify an adjective such as "good".[4]

According to lexicographer Allan A. Metcalf, the word is a marker of northern California dialect.[5] According to Colleen Cotter, "Southern Californians know the term ... but rarely use it." Sometimes the term grippa is used to mock "NorCal" dialect, with the actual meaning being the opposite of hella.[clarification needed][6]


Early use[edit]

Hella has likely existed in northern California English since at least the mid-1970s. Geoff Nunberg, a UC Berkeley linguist, has theorized on the origins of the slang term "hella".[2] "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, many slang words have spread from black English to white English and not in the other direction, which is why Nunberg says he suspects it started in Oakland,[2] an area that, at one point, was 47% African American.[citation needed]

By 1993, Mary Bucholtz, a linguist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, collated materials from an urban high school (Mt. Eden High School) in the Bay Area and found that hella was "used among Bay Area youth of all racial, ethnic, and socio-economic backgrounds and both genders."[7] Hella remains part of the dialect of northern California, where it has grown in popularity.[2]


By 1997, the word had spread to hip hop culture, though it remained a primarily West Coast term.[8] With the release of the 2001 No Doubt song "Hella Good," one Virginian transplant in California "fear[ed] the worst: nationwide acceptance of this wretched term."[9] Since the early 1990s hella has been used regularly in the Pacific Northwest as a common slang term, particularly in Seattle and Portland, Oregon. Popular area rappers Blue Scholars and Macklemore regularly use the term in their lyrics; Macklemore uses the word several times in his worldwide hit song "Thrift Shop".[10]

In the South Park episode "Spookyfish," which was the 1998 Halloween special, the character Cartman repeatedly used the term hella to the annoyance of the other characters,[11] which contributed to its currency spreading nationally.[12] "You guys are hella stupid" is one of the phrases spoken by a talking Cartman doll released in 2006.[13] The Sacramento-based band Hella chose its name for the regional association; Zach Hill says "It's everywhere up here.... We thought it was funny, and everyone says it all the time."[14]

Hella was included on the BBC's list of 20 words that sum up the 2000–2009 decade, defined as "An intensive in Youthspeak, generally substituting for the word very".[15]

Paralleling the use of the minced oath heck, some people use hecka in place of hella.[2] Younger school children may be required to use this form.[16] Church culture in Northern California also encouraged usage of hecka over hella.[17]

The Prince song "U Got The Look," released in 1987 on the album Sign o' the Times, features the lyric "your body's hecka slammin'...", which would appear to be an early adoption of the term hecka in its accepted vernacular usage.[18]



While intensifiers similar to hella exist in many colloquial varieties, hella is uncommonly flexible. It can be used to modify almost any part of speech, as shown below:[19]

  • That pizza was hella good: hella modifies the adjective good, where Standard American English would use very.
  • Chris's pizza is hella better than anyone else's: hella modifies the adjective better, replacing much.
  • I ate hella pizza: hella modifies the noun pizza, replacing a lot of.
  • I ran to the pizza joint hella quickly: hella modifies the adverb quickly, replacing very.
  • Was the party fun last night? -- Hella!: hella is used on its own as a reply replacing very or totally.

SI prefix[edit]

An online petition begun in 2010 by Austin Sendek of Yreka, California seeks to establish "hella-" as the SI prefix for 1027.[20] The prefix was recognized by Google in May 2010,[21][22][23] and Wolfram Alpha in May 2011.[24] In 2013, Andrew McAfee suggested the term hellabyte with this usage.[25] In 2022, the International Bureau of Weights and Measures adopted the prefix "ronna-" to represent 1027, as the symbol H, commonly used to represent "hella-", is already in use in the metric system for the Henry, a unit of inductance.[26]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Boboc, Wellesley (April 2016). To Hella and Back: A Syntactic Analysis of hella in Dialects of American English (PDF) (Senior honors thesis (undergraduate)). New York University. p. 11.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Eghan, Adizah (November 17, 2016). "The Origins of 'Hella'". KQED.
  3. ^ a b "hella, adv. and adj.". Oxford English Dictionary (Third ed.). Oxford University Press. 2002.
  4. ^ "Campus Slang". Voice of America. December 19, 2002. Retrieved February 13, 2008.
  5. ^ Allan A. Metcalf (2000). How We Talk: American Regional English Today. Houghton Mifflin Reference Books. ISBN 0-618-04362-4.
  6. ^ Colleen Cotter (2001). USA Phrasebook. Lonely Planet. ISBN 978-1-86450-182-7.
  7. ^ Bucholtz, Mary (2006). "Word Up: Social Meanings of Slang in California Youth Culture". In Goodman, Jane; Monaghan, Leila (eds.). A Cultural Approach to Interpersonal Communication: Essential Readings. Malden, MA: Blackwell. pp. 243–267. ISBN 9781405125956. OCLC 71243975. Retrieved May 25, 2014.
  8. ^ Lynette Holloway (January 5, 1997). "Shorties and Scholars Agree, the Word Is Rap". The New York Times. Retrieved February 12, 2008.
  9. ^ David Gentry (May 16, 2002). "I Hate Hella, All Montagues, and Thee". Charlottesville, Virginia: The Hook. Archived from the original on July 4, 2008. Retrieved February 13, 2008.
  10. ^ "Thrift Shop". lyrics.com.
  11. ^ "Spooky Fish Recap". TV.com. Archived from the original on March 22, 2008. Retrieved February 13, 2008.
  12. ^ Kristin Carmichael (Spring 1999). "Yo, yo, yo ... Catch this Slang is used to unify the masses". CatBytes. California State University, Chico. Archived from the original on July 24, 2008. Retrieved February 13, 2008.
  13. ^ Luigi Lugmayr (October 28, 2006). "Must Have: Talking Cartman Action Figure". I4U News. Retrieved February 13, 2008.
  14. ^ Jeremy Scherer (October 15, 2003). "Hella: Slang name for a band that's hard to pigeonhole". Inland Valley Daily Bulletin. Retrieved February 14, 2008.
  15. ^ "A Portrait of the Decade". BBC. December 14, 2009. Retrieved December 14, 2009.
  16. ^ Chawkins, Steve (July 6, 2010). "Physics major has a name for a really big number". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved April 5, 2014. Sendek, who was forced to use hecka as a child...
  17. ^ "How To Use Hella (RE: Language & Slang)". HITRECORD. April 24, 2014. Retrieved April 9, 2020.
  18. ^ Grant, Sarah (June 7, 2017). "Sheila E. Remembers Private Life With Prince, Wild 'Purple Rain' Parties". Rolling Stone Magazine. Retrieved June 12, 2017. It's an Oakland thing.
  19. ^ Skoultchi, Mark (February 1, 2011). "Have a Hella Good Time: On Intensifiers and Antonyms". Catchword.
  20. ^ Moore, Matthew (March 2, 2010). "Hella number: scientists call for new word for 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000". The Telegraph. London. Retrieved June 4, 2010. More than 20,000 scientists, students and members of the public have signed an online petition backing the new quantity, which would be used for figures with 27 zeros after the first digit.
  21. ^ "Jargon Watch". Wired. Vol. 18, no. 6. June 2010. ...a proposed metric prefix...useful for describing mega-measurements like Earth's mass (6 Hellagrams). The International Committee for Weights and Measures agreed to consider it after a Facebook petition garnered 30,000 signatures
  22. ^ "The Official Petition to Establish "Hella-" as the SI Prefix for 10^27". Facebook. Retrieved June 4, 2010.
  23. ^ Kim, Ryan (May 24, 2010). "Google gets behind 'hella' campaign". The San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved June 4, 2010.
  24. ^ Austin (May 31, 2011). "First goes Google, now goes WolframAlpha". Retrieved October 18, 2012.
  25. ^ Boulton, Clint (October 7, 2013). "Big Data Headed For 'Hellabyte' Metric, Says Andrew McAfee". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved April 21, 2019.
  26. ^ Elizabeth Gibney (November 18, 2022). "How many yottabytes in a quettabyte? Extreme numbers get new names". Nature. doi:10.1038/d41586-022-03747-9. PMID 36400954. S2CID 253671538.

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