By Alex Herbach
Sometimes it’s the words that aren’t in the dictionary that say the most about our language. NorCal native Alex Herbach explores a cultural phenomenon and linguistic rite of passage.
According to Webster’s Dictionary, the word “hella” does not mean anything. It does not mean “nothing” in the sense that it is a synonym for “nil,” but it does not mean anything because it’s not actually listed in the Webster’s Dictionary. Sandwiched between “hell” and “hell-bent” we find only “hellbender,” a large aquatic salamander of the Ohio River Valley. Why, then, is a word that is not actually a valid member of our official lexicon so ubiquitous to everyday conversation? Like many things that define themselves by being indefinable, “hella” can be understood by listening to the people who use it.
The best way to describe “hella” is self-referentially — “hella” is a hella complicated word. But before we can delve further into the word’s nature, we first must understand and accept The Directive. The Directive is the most important thing to understand if you ever want to fully know “hella”: never under any circumstance use “hella” to modify any word that isn’t cool.
“Hella” is so popular because it is cool and, as we all know, “cool” is the greatest power in life. As such, if you try and mix its coolness with things that are not cool (like big words, pocket protectors, math, or Celine Dion) society will collapse and the fabric of space-time will implode. Above all else, “hella” is a conversational word that is meant to be used in the casual environments of the quad but never in the serious surrounding of an honors English class. For instance, if my friend Axl were to talk about the exhilaration he felt when he found a twenty dollar bill in his lunch and I responded, “Damn, that’s hella serendipitous,” I would be answered in turn with a firm slap across my mouth. But if we rewound that scene and I instead responded with a slow, deep-toned, “Damn, that’s hella awesome,” I would be rewarded with the silent nods of approval that define friendship, and more importantly, being cool. (Incidentally, if I substituted the word “helluva,” Axl would think I was his grandfather and get hella freaked.)
Hella is not a Word for the Mature at Heart
By “mature,” I mean the Webster’s definition: “of or relating to a condition of full development; adult, ripe.” In fact, it can be postulated that the frequency of use of the word “hella” is inversely proportional to a person’s ripeness. A case in point: I was walking through the Redwood Middle School quad while I was attending that fine institution. As I walked, I recalled that my English teacher had scolded our class for using “hella” when discussing Edgar Allen Poe. As an experiment, I counted the number of times I heard the word while I walked. In less than five-hundred feet, I overheard the word “hella” twenty-seven times. I quote: “Britney Spears is hella hot,” “Michael Jackson is hella creepy,” “Adam Sandler is hella funny,” “Edgar Allen Poe is hella fascinating.” (Never mind that one. I got slapped in the mouth a lot in middle school.) Though only a one-time experiment, the ratio is still something to ponder. One “hella” per 18½ feet! Utterly fascinating! Now, for the sake of English (and for the good of the world), I continued the experiment during another lunchtime stroll through the Saratoga High quad, where my subjects were much more ripe. And what were my results? I quote: “Kucer is hella weird.” That’s right, only one. I marched up and back across the quad and I only heard one hella. (And that was from a teacher!) Does that prove, once and for all, that the more mature people get, the less they use “hella”? Actually, it does.
What makes “hella” so appealing to the younger crowd is exactly what makes Britney Spears so appealing to young kids (and some grown men). The same way Britney’s catchy beats, substance-free words and dental floss dresses — in short, her mindless accessibility — can comfort millions of people, “hella” is comfort food for the pre-adolescent soul. Without this vital characteristic, the word would be tossed aside for more straightforward words like “really,” “very,” or “indubitably.” Hella gives millions of vocabulary-challenged kids the perfect modifier, and the perfect excuse for not learning English.
For our unique demographic, the separation between child and adult is “hella.”
Hella can be used in almost any situation imaginable, along with a list of cool words that is quite small: sick, dope, sweet, tight, phat, and any word that ends in izzle (except “drizzle”). (One does need to apply some caution when izzle-ing. One should never pontifikizzle.) However, the older we get, the less appealing hella becomes. We start reading more; we listen more often in class; we learn that the plural form of sheep isn’t deer. In short, the need for easy-way-out modifiers wanes.
What makes “hella” so special is not its usage or its appeal, but its significance. For the millions of Northern Californian kids that use it, hella becomes a part of growing up — a kind of semantic rite of passage, if you will. For kids in the Midwest, it’s putting mustard on a hot dog; for kids in New York (or in the Bronx at least), it’s attending their first Yankees game. But for our unique demographic, the separation between child and adult is “hella.” Every time a kid uses “exceedingly” to describe a concert, each time a kid uses “gargantuan” to describe Mount Everest, he or she has taken a small step towards growing up. Every time a kid avoids using the word “hella,” a small part of the circle of life is fulfilled.
About the Author:
Alex Herbach is a print journalism major from Saratoga, CA with aspirations to write for anybody, anywhere so long as they pay him something. Anything. Interests include music and movies, and he prescribes wholeheartedly to the Aqua Teen Hunger Force worldview (Inignokt is hella cool.)