"I Hate Hella, All Montagues, and Thee"
By David Gentry
San Francisco– If I were to write a haiku about goatees, it would end with the five-syllable line, "laughable face-hair."
My friends and I have a little ongoing understanding that whichever one of us grows one and a) preens it seriously, and b) lets no one in on the fact that it's a ruse, will be that much cooler for the inside joke. In the same vein, there is a standing dare to incorporate "hella" into a sentence without so much as a wink or a nudge.
You see, I had been warned before transplanting myself to San Francisco that I'd meet "’wicked’s cousin ‘hella’” on the West Coast. Somewhere between slang and lexicon lives an adverbial exemplifier I had only heard in passing from a few Oregonians ("that peanut curry was hella good"). I considered it a minor affectation, an Alcatraz T-shirt, something only a tourist would take note of; I thought I'd encounter it only if I were searching.
Well, "hella" finds you hella fast when you teach the progenitors of slang: high school students.
Smart enough for wordplay, young enough to grossly exaggerate, and eager to set themselves apart with different vernacular, the kids I teach are embroiled in slang, and "hella" rules supreme. Its second-in-command, the G-rated "hecka," also draws a lot of water. I thought the infection would stay quarantined out here, but now I'm not so sure.
On the way to school this morning I was hella shocked to hear No Doubt's relatively new single, "Hella Good" on the radio. This was very bad. Some leak, some security breach, had somehow allowed this virus to replicate, and now I fear the worst: nationwide acceptance of this wretched term.
Will "hella" go the way of the backward hat? As Gwen Stefani belted out "Hella Good" innocently enough over the radio, my mind worked feverishly, despite my head's involuntary bobbing to the beat.
Where the hell did this word come from, anyway?
Like a friend's claim that he "invented" the archetypal acronym for a hot mama, "MILF" (Mother I'd Like to ****), I was sure that many groups would take claim for "hella."
I asked around, wide-eyed: "Where does 'hella' come from?"
Here's what I got: "It comes from Oakland– I think there's a Hella town there." "Nah, it's from up in Mendocino– they've been saying it for years." "Oregon– it's an Oregon thing." Clearly this was going nowhere, so I did a little research.
Mary Bucholtz, in the English Department at Texas A&M, reports that "hella" is a grammaticalized form of "hell of” used by "Bay Area youth of all racial, ethnic, and socio-economic backgrounds and both genders."
Evidently, it has been in use for over 20 years (!) but has eluded capture by scholarly literature.
Wily bastard. I hear that word about a hundred times a day. It has lost all of its gravity. Its overuse has jaded me to the point that I fear I might [gasp] accidentally drop it into conversation and unknowingly incur the respect of my fellow goatee-haters.
A summer I spent in Nantucket had me temporarily abandon my good buddy "y'all" for that exchange student "you guys," so I fear for the integrity of my slang. I want my slang to be immutable, to stay in the mid-‘90s and fix me firmly in my rad youth.
I want to be the over-aged disco inferno confidant in his tried-and-true moves– not a step behind in the Macarena.
I am your lookout, Virginia. Hella's headed your way. Please pay it no heed; let it become "lexi-gone."
Greene County native David Gentry blew the lid off unsanitary practices in the tap rental industry about a year ago with his exclusive report on "keg schmeg."