Experts Agree: Oakland's Favorite Word Has Hella Local Origins

Oakland First Friday protest, 2011. | PHOTO: THOMAS HAWK/FLICKR

By Susan Xu - Published on February 07, 2017.

While hella has long been associated with the Bay Area, questions regarding its exact origin persist. Many locals say Oakland is the word's birthplace; with help from several linguists, we've uncovered evidence that backs up that claim.

Strictly speaking, the word is a submodifier — an adverb that gives an adjective more meaning, like "very," "extremely," or Southern California's totally.

In practice, hella is also a "linguistic boundary" that separates the state, concluded UC Santa Barbara sociologist Mary Bucholtz in a 2007 paper. UC Berkeley Professor Sharon Inkelas told Hoodline that students from SoCal still report being surprised by hearing the word when they arrive on campus.

"It must not be entrenched there yet," she said. "I've heard it goes up the west coast too, to Seattle, but can't confirm that." UCLA linguistics professor Pamela Munro has documented the word's usage on her campus since 1994, but "everyone seems to believe it originated in Northern California," she said.

Linguist Ben Zimmer, a member of the American Dialect Society, said he believes "the earliest known printed usage" appears in an August 1986 interview with Metallica's James Hetfield in Bay Area skateboarding magazine Thrasher.

"Metallica had moved to the East Bay a few years before that," notes Zimmer. "That's slightly earlier than first known use in rap lyrics — Oakland's own Too $hort used it on the album Raw, Uncut and X-Rated, released in November 1986."

Other linguists and etymologists have made similar reports. UC Berkeley linguist Geoff Nunberg told KQED that he traced the word back to Oakland based on two citations found in a Berkeley student's 1987 dissertation.

Because slang often originates in African-American communities before crossing over to wider use, Nunberg said it was likely hella originated in Oakland.

In The Journal of English Linguistics, Bucholtz affirms the word's East Bay origins, adding that it was adopted widely in the 1990s as West Coast rappers established themselves in pop culture.

The Oxford English Dictionary added hella to its lexicon in 2002, defining it as a word used for emphasis, or to describe a large quantity. Although technically accurate, the OED fails to capture the emotion and sense of place the word evokes.

As one Urban Dictionary user wrote, hella is "a statement of cultural identification, of a long-standing bond of trust and respect for fellow Northern Californians, and of a mutual understanding between you and the rest of the world that you are from... NorCal."

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