A quick grammar lesson on the word ‘hella’

Photo via Pexels

Photo via Pexels

In case you missed it, March 4 was National Grammar Day (A dope day for sure, and one we’re sad we’re late to the party for). It would be a mistake to not address our region’s favorite expression — hella. The multi-use and versatile adjective is a part of every Sacramentan’s vocabulary, but how did the word come to be?

While the word is ubiquitous among native NorCal residents + PNW dwellers, plenty of people will tell you it’s not a word at all (cough, SoCal, cough). And that’s just hella wrong.

Hella officially made it into the Oxford English Dictionary in 2002 as an adverb. For those who might be transplants to the area, hella can replace words like “really,” “a lot,” “totally,” and “very.” Linguists trace its origins back to the late 1970s in Oakland, and it seems to have first appeared in print in the 1987 dissertation of a Berkeley student.

By the early 1990s, hella had made its way to Seattle and Portland, and even gained national attention through popular songs and TV shows. Notable uses of the word can be seen in songs from the Bay Area’s own Tupac, Mac Dre, and E-40.

Some scholars theorize hella to be a contraction of “hell of a” or “helluva.” While hell is typically a noun, hella is used to modify adjectives, or really any party of speech, making it a submodifier. For example, if you “ate hella tacos,” hella modifies the noun. Or if “the concert was hella fun,” the word modifies the adjective.

Another benefit of the word? A PG version has emerged — hecka — making it a great substitute for younger children + those who’d prefer to keep their language clean.

If you’re interested in learning more about the history of this or other West Coast dialectisms, check out the following titles: “How We Talk: American Regional English Today” and “Speaking American.”

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