Commentary, Russell Morse
When I was a kid, hella used to mean something. That seventh grader was hella fine and that teacher was hella boring and those Jordans were hella expensive. We didn’t know how else to say it.
Now hella has gone where slang words go to die: The Merriam-Webster Dictionary. I admire Webster for having the courage to change the spelling of colour to color all those years ago in an attempt to create an American vernacular, but plucking an obscure Northern California slang modifier from the internet (along with TMI and FOMO) and putting it in the dictionary (what even is a dictionary anymore?) is only chasing it to the grave. Not that it had much life left in it anyway.
Growing up in San Francisco in the 80s and 90s, people would know where you were from if you said hella. I’d visit my brother in LA and his friends would say, “Oh, you’re from Northern Cali,” based on the fact that I said I was hella hungry. How else was I supposed to say it? Very hungry? Wicked hungry? I guess I could have dispensed with the adjectives and just said “I’m starving,” but as Louis CK has pointed out (whilst disparaging young people), that’s disrespectful to people who are actually starving.
Further proof that this word is hella irrelevant is that fact that this generation has no need for modifiers. They have chosen hyperbole as their method of showing enthusiasm or dismay. They “literally die” when a cute boy walks by. New pair of Jordans? “THESE. ARE. EVERYTHING.” They can’t even choose a feeling to feel when they’re feeling hella emotional. They feel “all the feels.” But I’m not here to bemoan the younger generation’s methods of communicating or blame them for the irrelevance of the regional slang of my youth. No, I blame No Doubt.
It’s true that hella Bay Area people are literally dying over our word being in the dictionary, but my dismay started 16 years ago, when No Doubt released their album “Hella Good.” I saw the album’s display in a record store (now that’s a hella old fashioned sounding thing to say) and I literally could not. “Hella is Northern California slang!” I yelled hella loud in the store. “No Doubt is from Southern California!” (And not even LA. They’re from Orange County, which is a hella bootsy-ass place to be from, especially if you’re trying to jack our language. That’s where DISNEYLAND is. I can’t.)
From there, the pop culture trickle-down continued, mostly among rappers: Big Sean, Lil Wayne, Tec Nine, Wiz Khalifa, Macklemore, Snoop, and Rihanna, none of whom are from the Bay, have all used hella in their lyrics. It’s appeared on an episode of South Park. And now, at last, it’s in the dictionary.
Thankfully, hella was a little too weird to truly catch on outside of the Bay Area. We’ve had many traumatic experiences, losing our slang to rappers from other regions, then advertisers, and eventually, suburban dads. (We used to say fashizzle and mean it! Now it’s just a joke.)
I live in New York City now (where it’s mad brick tonight, B. Deadass. 18 degrees!) and I say hella whenever I can. It gets funny looks and it’s a nice way to remind myself who I am and where I’m from. From what I understand, kids in the Bay still say it and I’m glad that they do, even if they’re “hella actually dead” as a result of viewing a comical Harambe meme.