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Davis, California

Saturday, May 25, 2024

Column: Dropping The H-Bomb

Although I find myself surrounded by “hella fresh Baydestrians,” I hail from the land of, like, surfers and, like, dudes and, like, totally living in traffic on freeways like the 5 and the 405 and PCH. Yes, I am from the water-stealing, star-studded Southern California. Forgive me.

When I chose to leave SoCal for college, my high school friends made me promise not to succumb to the evil powers of NorCal lingo. Chiefly, I was warned to avoid all contact with the infamous “hella.” The “h-word” was described to me as being either “stupid,” “not a word” or “a lame attempt at acting cool.” Well, after a year of living in Davis, I’ve almost come to accept the h-word. Almost.

I don’t use the h-word myself, but I’ve stopped grimacing every time I hear it. I first came into contact with the term at freshman summer orientation. I was waiting in a hallway, and a girl was on the phone using “hella” as if all Northern California residents would pay her a quarter every time it came out of her mouth. “I’m hella bored. Oh my god, you’re hella late. When are you coming? Come on, I’m hella hungry.” You can imagine my disgust. (Ok, maybe not.) During those three lovely days of health jeopardy and going over the course catalog 50 times, I was also introduced to the h-word’s kid-friendly, baby sister “hecka.” Really? If you’re going to be cool and counterculture, at least be a little more hardcore about it.

I went back home and laughed with my friends about those NorCal people and their silly ways of speaking. Then September came around and I found myself back in hella-central. I might have been living in a skewed sample, but I found myself surrounded by a lot of h-word enthusiasts. Nothing as unique as the girl I encountered at orientation, but my friends loved to “drop the h-bomb” when they had the chance. And, they sometimes did it specifically to see my grimacing face when they said it.

Do lovers of the h-bomb hate me every time I use the word “like” more than three times in a sentence? Does “gnarly” sound epic lame? I keep trying to think of distinct SoCal slang, but I am drawing blanks. The only distinctions I find are with the h-word and the naming of freeways. (“The” is totally necessary!) Everything else is California English.

The h-word is second nature to some of you, but it took me a while to get used to hearing it. We even have UCD physics student Austin Sendek trying to make “hella” into a distinct way to measure the universe. Talk about defining life in your own terms. This isn’t just some joke among friends. The “The Official Petition to Establish ‘Hella-‘ as the SI Prefix for 10^27” Facebook group has close to 65,000 supporters. Although it rolls off the tongue so easily, the word still feels foreign in my mouth. It is like the first time you discover how to roll your “rr” in Spanish class. I only use the h-word when I want to be “satirical.” It’s just so ironic.

With the help of a few linguistics lectures, I have come to accept the word. “Hella” acts as an intensifier and is used mostly by youth in the Northern California area. As I understand it, the term is the contraction of the phrase “hell of a” or “hell of a lot of.” Linguistics teaches you to be objective. A word is a word as long as it gets a message across. If it gets the job done, who are we to judge?

Judging a person for using hella is like judging them for their clothing or cuisine; it is just a part of their culture. If we’re going to achieve world peace anytime soon, we can’t be looking at the world from our ethnocentric view. That’s how that disastrous blunder called WWII started. I am not saying that hella-haters are the next Hitlers, but the bullying has got to stop. I’ve realized my error, and I apologize. Dearest hella-users of the world, I accept you.

For some odd reason, I am perfectly fine using “hell of a lot of,” but I still have a slight aversion to using “hella.” I think it’s because I know I am not quite worthy of using it yet. To my SoCal readers, I know “hella” sounds strange, but don’t hate. Language constantly changes. Get over it and move on.

Reach CORRIE JACOBS at cljacobs@ucdavis.edu.



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