For some time I’ve been noticing a new slang word, “hella,” used as an intensive in all sorts of circumstances: “It cost hella money,” “That was hella cool,” &c &c. Now, thanks to thatweirdguy2 (posting in a MetaFilter thread), I’ve seen this paper by Rachelle Waksler and I know a lot more about it. I don’t plan on trying to use it myself; I’d just sound stupid. But keep right on reinventing the language, kids!

Addendum. A MetaFilter thread from last year traces the word back to the ’70s (!). It’s also a very funny thread.


  1. Huh. I’d been under the impression that hella was on the decline. Too late ’90s SoCal; it never managed to rilly rilly break out. –It’s always struck me as a bit awkward and forced: I like how it’s a contraction of both helluva and helluvalotuva; I like how it works as both adjective and adverb (like how “creepy” was used in that MeTa thread, before the hella derailette; a neat trick that, dropping the -ly off awkward adverbalizations. Good for clipped dialogue); but I’ve never seen or heard it used in a way that felt natural. It always seemed like whoever used it was just copying somebody else who’d done it better, snarkier, cooler.
    Or, again, such had been my impression. Kids these days. Reviving it while I wasn’t looking is just the sneaky kind of stunt they’d pull. –Or not.

  2. When I was in Northern California, everyone there claimed that “hella” started there and spread. I kind of picked it up in school at Berkeley (I grew up in L.A.), but when I came back east and said it a few times, people looked at me funny, so I’ve sort of dropped it.
    But it was definitely common among college kids at Berkeley.
    Interesting word, that. Must read that paper…

  3. Jason Malloy says

    I’m with k- ‘hella’ seems to be well on its way out of usage. Soon it will be extinct like the word ‘def’, leaving nothing behind but mysterious vestigial traces (i.e. ‘def comedy jam’)

  4. Yes, I wonder. How much of a kiss of death is a linguistics paper for the coolness of some street-talk?
    Hella lot, I bet.

  5. Just don’t write the obit too quickly. I thought “bitchin” (which was popular in Southern California in the ’60s) was dead decades ago, but then it resurfaced.

  6. Interesting sidenote that occurred as I was brushing my teeth last night:
    “Hella” and “mega,” as slangy modifiers, are pretty much interchangeable, down to the rhythm and shape they have in sentences: “She’s hella pissed”; “She’s mega pissed.” –Some sort of comparative study of usage seems to be in order, to determine if there’s more than just a casual link.

  7. Perhaps it’s declining in the western part of the country, but it’s definitely on the rise in the Midwest. Or at least it seems that way to me.
    Don’t feel bad about not being able to use ‘hella’, Steve–I got a weird look the one time I used it, and I’m only 20! 🙂

  8. I can vouch for its ascendancy in the midwest. But I have to add that the nuance tends to be ironic, as though the speaker (invariably one of the high school kids I work with) somehow knows it’s a moribund term, and the kid hopes to increase her own hipness by mocking former “hip” tags (like the use of “groovy” and “fab” in the 80s, or any of the kitchy 80s schlock that is currently cool in that snarky “cool” self-referential way of all faux-postmodernist teenagers).

  9. “Hella” is definitely on its way out here in the Northwest, and good riddance! I wouldn’t be sorry to see “hottie” go either.
    Here’s the new villainy I find myself increasingly guilty of: using “was all” or “was all, like” in place of “was like” (which itself replaces the staid “said”). E.g. “I asked Brad if he wanted to go salmon-hunting and he was all, like, ‘What’s a salmon?'”

  10. P. S. By “new villainy” I mean “turn of phrase I first heard on the East Coast in 1998” . . . .

  11. I still want to see a good linguistic analysis of the “was like” situation (and its distribution vis-a-vis “went”).

  12. something stupid, or hella funny?

  13. Some people, like Chris Onstad of achewood and this guy spell it “hell of”: “it was hell of cold in there”.
    I tend to associate it with “mad” and “wicked”, both of which I think are on the way out.

  14. Micah Estes says

    Yeah, I pretty sure that “hella” is a San Francisco Bay Area regional term.. or at least it originated. I’m 30 and have been using it since like 6th grade… and am almost embarrassed to admit that I still use it. But hey.. every part of the country has their own terms and slang. When I go to Dallas and New York and Virginia people are either confused by it, or they recognize me as being from the Bay Area. It’s so engrained that I don’t even realize I’m using it.
    A note on the usage – these days “hell of” is used instead of hella when the speaker wants to further emphasize what is being said. e.g. “Yeah dude, I just got back from Jamaica. Dude! The weed there is hell of good.” You stress the word “hell” and almost over-enunciate it making sure to make the breath of the H and planting your tongue firmly behind the front teeth to make a clear L sound.
    Also.. what about a linguistic analysis of the usages of the word “Dude?” That’s another one that I use subconsciously.
    How does anybody feel about being called “Brah” or “Bro?” Do you use it perfect strangers? with women?

  15. Mike Foster says

    Wow this is old but I can’t resist commenting. I’m 22 and have lived within an hour and a half of San Francisco my entire life. “Hella” is not on its way out among people probably 5 to 10 years older and younger than me in this area. I’ve said it since probably third grade and at this point there’s no way I could stop saying it in informal situations if I tried.
    It’s interesting to hear that it’s picking up in the Midwest. I’ve met people from Ohio who say that people there use “hella” quite a bit.
    I’m about to write a paper on “dude” as I saw someone mentioned interest in, I’ll post it if anyone is interested although it isn’t going to be a really in depth analysis (probably 6-7 typed pages only), it will be something to get the mind going on the subject.

  16. Jay Spizzle says

    Hella is here to stay. It is catchy, fun to use and 100% originated in the Yay Area. Norcal is the birthplace for the glorious HELLA

  17. In Seattle we hella say hella, though some people think its hella dumb. My cousins in SF think its wierd, so I guess we’ll have to keep the tradition alive up here.

  18. suckafreecity says

    Im From the San Francisco Bay Area, but have been living in Atlanta, GA for about a year and I have to say that no matter how much I try not to say “Hella” its just part of my vocabulary and it has been probably since I was able to talk (J/K but it was real early.) But I have to emphasize that the use of the word originated in Northern California; more specifically, the bay area. So you folks out there just keep doing what you do and not matter where you go don’t be afraid to speak the way you’ve always spoken, no matter how funny you sound to other people. I’ve been clowned on so many times out here in the south for saying hella but its hella better than sounding like these country folk.

  19. hey i go to high school in the bay area, hella is definitely not on the way out, every single person i know around my age says it. when i visit friends in so cal they hella make fun of me, but i cant stop saying it. (and no, i did not just say it on purpose.) i probably say it a lot more than a lot of my friends, but i know they all say it too. its pretty much just a nor cal thing, everywhere else i’ve been i get made fun of when i say it.

  20. I hella say hella, but most often I’ll say hecka. People just give me blank stares here at school in Providence, but my friends at home in Sacramento think it’s a NorCal thing and are pretty proud of it, just as people here are proud of saying “wicked” (especially if they’re from Boston.) It never means hell of a though, and I think it’s overly optimistic to say it’s on its way out.

  21. I just moved to the bay area. If you say hella in front of me, that will be the last time we will ever speak.

  22. It is really insulting to say such a thing. You’re the outsider moving in, why should we have to adapt to your ways? “When in Rome…” mister. If you don’t like hella, you chose the wrong place to
    move to.
    I was born in San Francisco and lived here all my life. Hella is still a new word for new comers of the bay area. I doubt it’s on the way out. I still use it and it would be too much work to try not to when I say it without really thinking about it.

  23. The stupidest adjective ever to infect the English language; “hella” – burst onto the scene at San Diego State University the summer of 1986.

    “That’s hella cool”, “I’m hella drunk”, “That test was hella hard”, ‘That girl is hella hot”

    I refused to use the word. It’s hella stupid… Gwen Stafani didn’t hella help it either.

  24. David Eddyshaw says

    The project (sadly in abeyance, as far as I can see) to replace the Java-ish bits of Android with Inferno, so as to effectively run Plan 9 on your phone (and who wouldn’t want to do that?) was originally to be called the Hellphone, before the developers realised that as they were in Northern California they had no choice but to call it the Hellaphone.


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