As part of our series Bay Curious, we’re answering questions from KQED listeners and readers. This question comes from Ventura Albor, who wanted to know:

How is it that “hella” became synonymous with the Bay?

Ventura’s question was inspired by his college days at UC Davis.

“L.A. folks would [home] in on it right away and be like, ‘Oh you’re from the Bay Area?’ ” he says. “I never really thought of it, I just thought everyone said hella.”

Hella: A Linguistic Boundary

Many Bay Area residents and Californians believe that hella — and its G-rated equivalent “hecka” — are Bay Area slang. The words, which mean “very” or “a lot of,” can be used multiple ways. You can say “I’m hella stoked” or “There were hella people at that party last night,” or even, “I was doing it for hella days.”

Mary Bucholtz, a linguist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, conducted a study in which people indicated their perceptions of how people talk in certain areas of California.

Hella was the most frequently cited word, and 78.4 percent of the people who mentioned it in the study said it was Northern California slang.

“For Southern Californians in particular, hella represents a crucial shibboleth separating the two major regions of the state,” says Bucholtz.

That’s true for Southern California transplant Bree DeRobbio, now living in San Jose. She remembers the first time she heard someone say hella.

“My reaction was ‘Oh my God, they really do say it.’ And I was amazed at all the different applications the word has,” she says.

The Dictionary Says WHAT?

There are at least two origin stories for hella: One places it in Toronto (yes, Canada) and the other in Oakland.

More on Oakland later, but first — Toronto? I mean, really?

Hella made its first appearance in the Oxford English Dictionary in 2002, and the dictionary says the word was first used in a 1987 article in the Toronto Star:

“The horse went hella whoopin’ down the trail, trailing 50 feet or more of the best Berkley Trilene Monofilament line.”

(Sidenote: That part about the best Berkley Trilene Monofilament line refers to a type of fishing line — no relation to Berkeley, Calif.)

In fact, hella is identified as Northern American slang that was probably shortened from “helluva” or “hellacious.” But English-language historian Michael Adams says hella’s grammatical usage doesn’t quite align with what the Oxford English Dictionary says.

“I’m really skeptical of that etymology that hella comes from helluva because we don’t use hella grammatically in the same way that we would use helluva,” Adams says.

A slang flash card explains the use of the word.
A slang flash card explains the use of the word. (knockknockstuff.com)

What Adams means is you can’t get “hella cute” from “helluva cute,” or say, “My dad’s a hella cook,” even though you could say, “My dad’s a helluva cook.”

He also has an explanation for why hella didn’t come from hellacious.

“The suffix from hellacious is ‘—acious,’ like tenacious, and if you’re going to break a word, you’re usually going to break a word where there’s a boundary between its parts,” Adams says.

According to this theory, the natural break for hellacious would make it “hell-aysh,” not hella.

From Oakland Teens to the Rest of the World

UC Berkeley linguist Geoff Nunberg traces hella back a few more years, to Oakland, from two early citations in a 1987 dissertation of a Berkeley student.

Some in Oakland have embraced the word. Mayor Libby Schaaf often used it while campaigning, saying 'I hella love Oakland' and 'It is hella time for leadership in Oakland.'
Some in Oakland have embraced the word. Mayor Libby Schaaf often used it while campaigning, saying ‘I hella love Oakland’ and ‘It is hella time for leadership in Oakland.’ (cplbasilisk/Flickr)

“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, slang spreads from black English to white English and not in the other direction, which is why Nunberg says he suspects it started in Oakland.

Phrases like “cool” and “tell it like it is” are good examples.

“ ‘Cool’ was adopted by white hipsters and beatniks in the early ‘50s before spreading to teen slang. ‘Tell it like it is’ was used by black writers in the early ’60s and quickly became part of general white English,” he says.

That lines up with what multimedia producer Sean Kennedy, an Oakland native, recalls.

He remembers saying hella with the kids on his Pop Warner football team and at King Estates Junior High School in the late ’70s.

“Very rarely in the African-American or black community do we pick up other people’s language and use them,” he says. “It’s usually the language we create and other people use  them.”

At that time, hip-hop and street culture gained widespread popularity.

“It was used in a manner of explaining, ‘That looked hella good— that looked good’—something that was clean, or somebody acting crazy, ‘You’re hella crazy,’ ” Kennedy says.

Bay Area Punks Debate Hella Vs. Hell Of

In early years, Bay Area youth debated whether the slang word was hella or actually “hell of.”

In Berkeley, the debate could get quite heated, says punk rocker Frank Portman. In 1997, he wrote a song called “Hell of Dumb,” poking fun at the issue with his band the Mr. T. Experience. He thinks the  hella vs. hell of debate goes back to 1983.

“It was always very clear that it was hell of. It was not hella and if anyone ever said hella, which sometimes people did, they would always correct you with the attitude of a school marm correcting your grammar,” Portman says.

Hella Now

Since those early days, widespread use of hell of, hellacious and helluva has dwindled — leaving hella to stand alone.

Hella got a national audience in the South Park episode “Spookyfish,” from the second season.

Cartman taunts Stan and Kyle by singing, “You guys are hella stupid, you guys are hella lame, you guys are hella dumb hella, hella, hella.”

The word may be one of Northern California’s most notorious cultural exports.

You’re welcome, world.

Got a question you want to see the Bay Curious team take on? Submit it!

  • Another Mike

    First time I heard hella was in Singapore, in 1993. I thought it was part of “Singlish.”
    Although now that I have heard this story, I think they were using it to make me, a Bay Arean, feel at home.

    • Melissa

      I grew up in Union City in the 80’s. It was our everyday vocabulary.
      But we said hell of.

  • Joel Kovisto

    Having Numberg’s input, and Kennedy’s positively placing “hella” in Oakland in the late ’70s, gives this article a lot of cred. It’s been my belief for a long time that the word’s origins were actually Sacramento.

    I first heard “hella” in San Diego in 1989, maybe 1990, from I guy I worked with who was from Sacramento. Nobody else said it. In January 1991 I moved to Sacramento, and lots of people were saying it. I also started hearing it from teenage cousins in Vacaville at that time. In 1993 I moved to SF, where few people were using the expression. I’ve had one person assert that it originated around Placerville and migrated into Sacramento from there. I can’t verify that. So, it’s been my belief for over 20 years that it originated in Sacramento.

    I didn’t move to Oakland until 2000, and was probably too old hear it from the kids actually using the expression. But given my own timeline, I can’t say that it didn’t actually begin in Oakland. I wasn’t there to verify it.

    • free1thinker

      I grew up in Oakland and was saying it with my friends in the mid 1980s.

    • ZeonChar

      I grew up in San Diego and I didn’t hear this term until I moved to the Bay Area around 1997.

  • Kevin Vance

    I first heard “Hell Of…” used by my young brother and his friends in Berkeley in the early 1980s. Things were “HELL Of Nasty” or “HELL of fine” or “HELL of cool!”

  • Anna Pinion

    When my daughter was little, the kids all said hecka instead of hella. I hadn’t ever heard that before. I’m from the Midwest.

  • Justin Clark

    Etymologically speaking, I’ll stick with my belief that it originated from “hell-of” because languages seem to use elision (removal of a sound or morpheme – like contractions) and syntactical shortcuts for more efficiency. I disagree that because “hella” can be used in grammatical contexts other than “hell-of-a”, that this should be ruled out as a possible origin, because, other than in school, when does prescriptive grammar alone dictate what the masses actually say and how they say it?

    • Sam Hurwitt

      Well, I agree that it’s short for “hell of,” but I also agree that it being short for “hell of a” is very unlikely. It’s not just that “hella” can be used in contexts other than “helluva”–there’s no expression in which one can be swapped for the other while retaining the same meaning. They’re two completely different expressions.

  • Amanda Elizabeth Adams

    Seriously?! “Home” in on something *facepalm*. It’s HONE IN http://grammarist.com/eggcorns/home-in-hone-in/

    • Hey Amanda. Funny you bring this up because we actually had debate in the newsroom about which version to use! “Home in” is the traditional and more widely accepted spelling. “Hone in” is a variation that many consider an error — though it is used so widely now that many regard it as a proper option. Ultimately, we decided to take the traditional route here.

      • Amanda Elizabeth Adams

        Yea.. language evolves. I’ve talked with many people on this particular phrase and not a single person considers home in accurate or appropriate for most of the contexts in which that phrase gets used. Maybe it’s a regional thing but I as far as the US goes I’d be happy to wager most people say hone.

    • Jody Murphy

      Seriously?! Your evidence was not hella convincing, considering “hone in” is an eggcorn of “home in.”

  • Philip Healy

    This is the worst article. Anyone from Nor Cal knows that Hella came from Sacramento. A 1987 dissertation!? “Historically, slang spreads from black English to white English and not in the other direction, which is why Nunberg says he suspects it started in Oakland.” So it must have come from black people so it must have come from Oakland. Little bit afrocentric on everything there author?

    • free1thinker

      What year did it come from Sacramento? Rather than your scorn and your desire to disassociate the word from the black community share where your info comes from. I grew up in Oakland and my friends and I said this in the mid-80s. It had been around before. We didn’t invent it as the older kids said it too. At the time Sacramento was nothing but the capitol and a train museum. No culture left there to influence anybody. But with the 80s recession lots of Bay Area families moved to cheaper Sacramento and possibly transported their use of the word.

    • Juel Herbranson

      No, it spread to Sacramento from Oakland. Also, it was more of a white thing when I was little. I grew up in oakland, and my older friends were using it easily before ’77.

      • dieselox

        Yeah, I think I can find a letter from my cousin using hella pre 1976, in his descriptions of his dragsters and hottods.

  • Vanarchist

    It actually comes from Southern cali slang and is short for “hellafied”a word which can be heard on Dr. Dre’s The Chronic on a song called Nuttin but a G Thang : [Verse 3: Snoop Dogg] Falling back on that ass, with a hellafied gangsta lean · Getting funky on the mic like a old batch of collard greens

    • free1thinker

      Except people in Oakland were saying it long before that album came out so…

  • Chris Fry-Lopez

    according to Oakland personality Old Skool Copes, Kids in West Oakland in the late 1960s would say Hecka( meaning a lot of) when they grow up in the mid-70s they changed it to Hella

    • Philthyrich@gmail.com

      If any one would know, Copes would.

  • Sam Hurwitt

    We definitely said hella all the time (and hecka, for that matter) when I was growing up in Berkeley and Oakland in the 1970s and 1980s. Or rather, we HELLA said it. And yeah, it was short for “hell of” and used interchangeably with it.

  • Chris Sommers

    I first heard a _white_ classmate use this term in 1974 at Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland. It is clearly a shortened form of “hell of.” It’s hella obvious.

    • Juel Herbranson

      Agreed. I was born in 1975 in Montclair, off of Thornhill Drive. I never remember a time, when even myself in pre-school didn’t view it as a form of a cuss word. Apparently, it had trickled down from the older kids. Yes, it meant ‘hell of’, with out doubt, and in fact we used them interchangeably along with hecka. People keep saying it was late 70’s. No, I’m not sure about that. Even kids in the flats and some in Berkeley weren’t accustomed to it in the mid 70’s. It was 78, I was 3 and everyone had been saying it, it wasn’t new at all, at least around Montclair. And yes kids in SF and LA would do nothing but make fun of us “hella-what?? helicopter????”. Instead they would say ‘so’ and really stress it like ‘sooooo funny’.

  • Totallity

    When I moved to Sacramento in 1979 my quarterback at Sac State was from Alameda. He and some of his buddies were the first users of the term (and they used it frequently, in almost every sentence!) of the term “Hell Of” or “Hella.” That makes me believe it was not started in Sac., but certainly had use their as early as 1979 when we freshmen met there.

  • Carl

    I heard there was another study done that placed it’s origin at Mt. Eden High School in Hayward, CA.

    • Hayweird

      We we’re using it in southern Alameda County (Hayward, Castro Valley,
      San Leandro) as early as 1972. It was more common with the low riders in
      South Hayward than with the Stoners in the hills, but it seemed like it
      was part of the slang of all the teenagers. As in “the Black Sabbath
      concert at Winterland in 72 was Hella Bad” (meaning really good). Don’t
      know where it started, but the
      timeline is certainly wrong.

      • Zuleika

        I first heard it from the Low Rider crowd, too, in the late 1970s, maybe 1978. In fact, I distinctly associate it with that group and I don’t think it made its way into the white teen population of Berkeley until a number of years later. It’s likely it was in use earlier in that group because it seemed widespread, but I might have been too young to notice and my contact with East Bay Low Riders was secondary (through a sibling who started hanging with that crowd, while the rest of my social circle was middle class Berkeley white).

  • Chris Wilder

    Well, my band Stikky – having spent hella time in Berkeley and Oakland in the mid-80’s – penned this jocular tune in probably 1987: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=22AbAKFULjc If you have trouble making out the words, you can probably look them up.

  • Keli Sullivan

    Prince used the term “heck-a slammin'” in U Got the Look with Sheena Easton in 1987. He met Sheila E (who was/is from Oakland) in 1978 and began working with her in 1984 on Purple Rain…you do the math. Also, growing up in the Bay Area in the 70s and 80s, I do remember “hella” being hella popular lingo in school.

  • Puckmeister

    Grew up in Oaktown and high school’d in Berkeley in 60’s/70’s…was using “hella” back then…short for “hell of”. That’s hella fact!

  • Joel Kovisto

    I’d say the case is pretty strong that the expression comes from Oakland and migrated to Sacramento. @Totallity I can buy that even after believing it to be from Sac for 20+ years. But it also seems as likely that it was started by white kids. Maybe that impression has something to do with the demographic make-up if the readers here. It still seems pretty organic though, not spread by pop stars so much. Can anybody say it started in the hills or flats for sure? Maybe the schools were better integrated in the 70s than I think, and that degree of distinction can’t be made.

  • kobi

    We were definitely using this word as far back as the mid 70’s in Milpitas. Someone actually wrote it when she signed my yearbook in 1983.

  • Glenn Sauber

    Even The Tahoes wrote a song about it; https://thetahoes.bandcamp.com/track/hella-norcal

  • Marla Bennet

    Heard of “hell of a”–never heard of “hella”

    • mudduck9000

      It’s a Northern California thing. If you aren’t from there then there’s a pretty good chance you haven’t heard it used very often if at all. I kind of skimmed the article, so I’m not sure if the article was trying to say that it was ubiquitous nowadays beyond Northern California. If the article is claiming that, then I’d have to disagree. Frankly, most California pop culture exports come out of Southern California, not Northern.

      • joseph1978

        I was listening to a podcast that a friend’s girlfriend does and she recently said “hella” in one episode. She was born and raised in Maryland. So it’s definitely known outside of California. How frequently it’s used elsewhere in the country is a question, but it’s definitely known.

  • Alexander Mann

    The origin is between Hayward, Newark and Fremont. How dare they try and attribute it to the nearest biggest city Oakland. That is hella disrespectful. It is not from Norcal. It is the the southern Alameda County suburbs. The journalist hella doesn’t know what he is writing about.

  • Matthew Lorono

    Hella goes back farther than the 70s. It actually appears in a Dean Martin movie from the 60s. I forget the movie’s name, but it was the one that was the basis for the Austin Powers movies.

  • Lakota Harden

    Oakland is where we’ve using hella . . For decades now. . common language among so many of us. .

  • Kittyking

    I went to ODowd in Oakland 1970-74 and everyone said hella. Black and white as I recall

  • Kittyking

    I could really believe it came from Castro Valley cause a lot of kids from ,CV went to ODowd. And they were hella cool.

  • sephrich

    First off, I’m glad we can all agree that it wasn’t Toronto!??!?! I grew up in San Jose in the 70’s and never heard it once, I moved to Fairfield in the early 80’s where EVERYBODY was saying it. I always attributed it to Fairfield, which would solve the debate on whether is was Oakland or Sacramento. Cause Fairfield is right between. Either way it’s definitely a Nor Cal thing that I take pride in and still use well into my 40’s.

  • Jeremy

    Northern California is right, bay area? Whatever. We were hella sayin hella in the early 80s in Sacramento.

  • dieselox

    My older cousin was using Hella in 1976. He was living on Oakland/Berkeley border, skating everywhere, his focus was a skate shop off Telegraph up about Durant. I asked him point blank if he meant Hell of, and he was adamant. It was Hella. Hella cool, whatever. Not Hell of, no way, nothing to do with it. Maybe came from it, but was a new word. I was about 10, he was 14.

  • niki

    I am from the bay and I never even realized I was saying it or I guess that everyone else didn’t until I was on the east coast and someone pointed it out. It is so ingrained! I keep hearing it said lately in pop culture like songs or in articles and it sounds awkward when other non northern Californians say it!

  • I remember things being “hella” whatever west of San Pablo Ave back around 1980-81. My favorite adjective it was paired with was “icy.” You knew it was hella HELLA bad (which is to say, hella good) if it was hella icy.

  • Jim Hamilton

    “Helluva” is not a word, it’s a phrase and it’s spelled, “hell of a”. Though, while we’re on the subject, I have always been of the belief that “hella” is a contraction for “hell of a lot of”. My $0.02

  • Peter Montgomery

    Late 1970s Berkeley Public Schools: Many kids, especially skaters and stoners were saying Hella, at lunch, and on the AC bus. That was West Campus and Berkeley High. By 1981 it was typical Berkeley slang. Cheers, -peter

  • John Hansen

    I was Born 1971 in Concord CA and used “hell of” my whole life in just about every conversation. The area of origin has been known for a long time because someone told me it was a NorCal slang back in like ’87. I never got the feeling it was black slang at all, I always felt it came from the white BMX/Skater crowd because the most common use was “hell of dude”. I think the black slang was still using “cat” and not “dude in the early ’70s. To see people say it came from the Biker crowd in the early ’70s, I would have to say that is your best bet. I could be way off with all of this racial stuff but that’s how I remember it.

  • Scott Johnson

    It comes from the fog light company HELLA in the late 70s that had fog light covers that largely displayed there name. It came out that for my group of friends.

    It would also explain why the term became popular in foggy northern ca and not LA.

    HELLA cool fog lights. You’re welcome

  • hcat

    For a long time “bitchin “, which could also be spelled “bitchen “, was a So Cal shibboleth from 1960 to at least 1980. It avoided commercial exploitation because it sounded dirty, even though it was not. Somebody ought to write about slangs that stay regional.

    Also is “hella” Northern California, or the Bay Area? Large parts of NorCal are completely different from the Bay Area.

  • J

    We lived in the Washington apts. in San Lorenzo in 1974 and all the kids were saying it then. I am going on the record to say it started there. Hella is absolutely short for hell of and Hecka is short for heck of which we used around adults back then. “I was hella bookin” meant you were going very fast. No way Toronto and not Oakland, guaranteed. It was something that was very local for awhile. Around the mid 70’s a lot of Philappinos moved to the east bay and they said it A LOT. Then it jumped to Daly City and the peninsula. Thats how I remember it.

    • j

      I am posting again because I did not read the article before my first post. Not to be mean but the author is very wrong. I was around then and clearly remember how ,when and where we used hella. It seems like lazy journalism. I hope she goes back and does some more research which would not be that hard.

  • Lana Lane

    It was 1990 or 91 and I was wearing puffy braids in my hair and the wind was blowing my braids and two guys were walking by and one said” Oh she got hella hair”. That was the first time I ever heard it used.

Author

Adizah Eghan

Adizah Eghan is a reporter at KQED News and a writer for KQED Arts. She caught the radio bug as an intern for PRI's The World and landed in KQED's newsroom after a stint teaching English in India. She covers culture, the arts, and global music in the Bay Area. This is where she tweets: @Adizah_E

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