Hella gets huge
How a UC Davis student’s Facebook campaign might formalize Sacramento’s most famous slang term
Words for measurements and numbers often move from science to slang, as you know if you’ve ever waited “light years” for anything or used clichés such as “Don’t give them an inch.” Real numbers, such as millions and billions, are also fodder for “zillions” and “kajillions.” And insults such as “nano-minded” and “nano-souled” show that a certain metric prefix gets used for all sorts of imprecise, small things besides just iPods.
The English language is a world champ at slangifying the specific—while at once disappointing math teachers everywhere.
Now, a slang term rooted in Sacramento is trying to make math teachers proud: More than 60,000 Facebook fans want to make hella the official word for 10 to the 27th power, or 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, in International System of Units (or SI, as per the French Système International d’Unités). The online campaign has been successful enough to get the International Committee for Weights and Measures to actually think it over.
Their acceptance would complete a wild reversal of the usual slang path. Hella could in fact be a reverse nano in the making.
The idea started with Austin Sendek, a physics student at UC Davis, who lamented that yotta is the metric system’s highest prefix, even though it only means 10 to the 24th power, a piddling amount given the vastness of measurable stuff. As Sendek puts it: “In our world of increasing physical awareness and experimental precision, this number is no longer a satisfactory ‘upper bound’ in scientific nomenclature.”
Sendek says that designating a prefix for 10<sup>27</sup> is of critical importance for scientists in all fields. “This number is significant in many crucial calculations, including the wattage of the sun, distances between galaxies or the number of atoms in a large sample,” he argues.
The idea is intriguing, logical—and partly inspired by the fact that hella is popular slang in science-and-surf-soaked Northern California. And while the ginormousness of 10 to the 27th power is well beyond my fathoming skills, Sendek is persuasive in selling its potential benefits.
“[T]he number of atoms in 120 kilograms of carbon-12 would be simplified from 6,000 yottaatoms to 6 hellaatoms,” he explains. “Similarly, the sun (mass of 2.2 hellatons) would release energy at 0.3 hellawatts rather than 300 yottawatts.” Sounds reasonable, right? As Jonathon Keats recently mentioned in his Jargon Watch feature in Wired, the Earth’s mass could be expressed as 6 hellagrams, as opposed to (I think) 6,000 yottagrams.
(I would also vote to change yotta to lotta, but I can feel my high-school math teacher glaring at me, so I retract the suggestion.)
Before anyone dreamed hella could measure the massive rock beneath our feet, folks were using it as a distinctly NorCal piece of slang. Its patron pop song is 2001’s “Hella Good” by No Doubt, but locals Zach Hill and Spencer Seim’s experimental-rock duo Hella beat Gwen Stefani out the gate.
The Oxford English Dictionary traces its use back to at least 1987: “The horse went hella whoopin’ down the trail, trailing 50 feet or more of the best Berkley Trilene Monofilament line,” it reads.
In regular use, hella often means “very,” as in the recent examples “hella ugly,” “hella big news,” “hella productive” and “hella interested.” The other main meaning—“a lot”—is more in line with Sendek’s proposed definition.
Hella seems to have two parents: helluva and hellacious, and it’s plausible as an abbreviation of either. The OED traces helluva back to 1905, and hellacious back to an 1847 mention of a “hellacious scamp.”
Yet it’s hard to think of helluva without recalling heckuva, a word that achieved its greatest notoriety in 2005 post-Hurricane Katrina, when President George W. Bush praised Federal Emergency Management Agency idiot-in-chief Michael Brown with the words, “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job.”
Hella also has a child of its own: hecka, which has been out there since at least 1985. Lexicographer Grant Barrett traces its history to a sports article and the sentence “We had a hecka season.” Over the past few years, local blog HeckaSac (http://heckasac.blogspot.com) has staked claim, in a de facto sense, to the term’s pop-culture use, much like Hill and Seim’s band did for hella.
Whether or not hella attains metric status—details on the gnarly process of acceptance can be found at http://makehellaofficial.blogspot.com—it’s a useful reminder of an important point: All language changes, even our most objective, scientific vocabularies. Many despise change, or just certain words in particular, such as one San Francisco Chronicle online commenter who wrote, “Whenever I hear someone say ‘hella this’ or ‘hella that,’ I just want to pop them upside the head,” in response to adopting the prefix.
Unfortunately for this victim of word rage, there are just too many heads to pop and too many words evolving, dying and being born all the time. There’s not much point in playing Whac-a-Mole with new words and meanings: At the risk of earning a head popping myself, that job is hella futile.