How to Use ‘Hella’ Properly

We got our own slang
But everybody took it

Zion I, “The Bay”

See that line between purple and blue? That’s where we should split the state in half. 💅

If you don’t live in California (or on the West Coast, or maybe west of the Rockies, or even in the U.S. at all), you may not be especially familiar with the slang term “hella.” Hella is from the SF Bay Area, particularly the East Bay — Oakland, Berkeley, etc., and extending down to Santa Cruz.

I grew up very much not in California. The first time I remember being aware of hella was on South Park. It seemed like slang that only very cool people to the west of me could pull off — surfers, skateboarders, and the like. When I moved Out East, hella was also nonexistent — that is, until I met my wife, born and raised in Berkeley. She didn’t use hella at the time, having removed it from her speech for attracting too much attention in New England, but she did tell me all about it.

It all seemed a little silly and overstated, to be honest.

But several years later, we moved to Berkeley/Oakland and were suddenly surrounded by it. Most of my friends here grew up in the East Bay and drop hella into sentences casually and profusely. (Even after 10 years here, I still don’t say it much but will whip one out for emphasis now and again.)

As I’ve studied Northern Californians (You know what’s not a great demonym? Bay Arean.) in their natural habitat, I’ve been fascinated by this linguistic quirk and have discerned a few rules and best practices for its usage.

Hella 101

Incorrect:

Hella does not mean “helluva/hell of a.”
“We had a hella time fitting the couch through the front door.” 🙅

Correct:

Hella means “very” or “a lot of.”
“That party was hella tight.” (Very.)
“There are hella fools at this sideshow.” (A lot of.)

Hella 201

Now that you’ve got the usages down, you can learn to inflect them properly.

Hella in its very usage is short and clipped. In the above example: “That party was hella tight” — emphasis on the tight. Tight is the focus; hella is helping. (Very tight party.)

However, in the a lot of usage, the speaker should emphasize the hella and lean into the “L”s: “There are helllllla fools at this sideshow.” Hella is the focus. (So many fools at the sideshow.)

Further reading

Bonus East Bay linguistic fact: “Y’all” is relatively popular here, at least compared to the rest of the U.S. besides the South. Theories include:

  • Still-ringing echoes of the Great Migration as Southerners moved north and west.
  • Gender-inclusive version of “you guys” — we hella thoughtful out here.

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