Hella Enters the Vernacular

The intensifier shows up in song lyrics, weather reporting, and even The Sunday Times.


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Joining Silly String and “the wave”on a long list of cultural phenomena with strong East Bay links, the word “hella” has hit the mainstream big time.

The little intensifier has been around since clear back to the prehistoric 1970s, and lost its edge years ago through merciless overuse and national exposure on South Park. Even first-graders got into the act, switching into “hecka” mode when teachers were within earshot.

But now, a clever bit of Taylor Swift guy talk has put “hella”back in vogue.

Sorta.

“Shake It Off,” the first single on Swift’s new album 1989, defies those who dare to question someone else’s dating habits. The singer gets a whole lotta ”shake shake shaking” going on in response to the “fake fake faking”of the “haters.”Then, Swift downshifts into some dish when a former ex shows up at the disco. The new girlfriend on his arm goes aquiver, but Swift makes it clear she has already moved on, and is eyeing her new boy toy, in this case, “the fella over there with the hella good hair.”

It is not likely to be confused with a line from Emily Dickinson, or even Gwen (“Hella Good”) Stefani. Still, when viewed in the context of several decades worth of street slang analytics, it’s doggerel worthy of a dissertation, especially now that it makes its way into hashtags in response to extreme weather events and also winds up in the headline and lead paragraph of a piece on Oakland in The Sunday Times.

UC Santa Barbara linguistics professor Mary Bucholtz was one of the first serious scholars to take on “hella.”She also knows her Taylor Swift. We may consider “hella” as an annoying all-purpose modifier signifying nothing much—a way to say “very” or “really” with a vaguely naughty hint of Hayward. But Bucholtz sees this Northern California slang as “a very stable regional marker” and a “kind of slippery”signifier of “social group identity.”

In her 2001 treatise, “Word Up: Social Meaning of Slang in California Youth Culture,” Bucholtz wrote that “the term is a marker of more than age or generation; it also signals an orientation to coolness, as indicated by its co-occurrence with other linguistic markers of youth culture,” such as its use in phrases like “hella tight” or creatively misspelled hip-hop lyrics.

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