"Hella" Gets Huge

Posted by Mark Peters

How a Facebook campaign might formalize the biggest slang word yet.

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 like millions and billions are 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 iPods. The English language is a world champ at slangifying the specific (while disappointing math teachers everywhere).

Now a slang term is trying to make the reverse journey, thanks to almost 60,000 Facebook fans who 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 SI (the French Système International d'Unités). The campaign has been successful enough to get the International Committee for Weights and Measures to think it over, and their acceptance would complete a wild reversal of the usual slang path. "Hella" could be a reverse-nano in the making.

It started with Austin Sendek, a physics student at the University of California at 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... Designating a prefix for 10^27 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.”

Sendek’s idea is intriguing, logical, and partly inspired by the fact that “hella” is popular slang in science-and-surf-soaked Northern California. The ginormousness of 10 to the 27th power is well beyond my fathoming skills, but Sendek is persuasive in selling its potential benefits: “...the number of atoms in 120 kg of carbon-12 would be simplified from 6,000 yottaatoms to 6 hellaatoms. Similarly, the sun (mass of 2.2 hellatons) would release energy at 0.3 hellawatts, rather than 300 yottawatts.” As Jonathon Keats mentioned in his Jargon Watch feature in Wired, the earth’s mass could be expressed as 6 hellagrams as opposed to (I think) 6000 yottagrams. I would also vote to change “yotta” to “lotta,” but I can feel my high school math teacher glaring at me, and I retract the suggestion.  

Before anyone dreamed “hella” could measure the massive rock beneath our feet, folks were using it as a distinctly Californian piece of slang. Its patron pop song is 2001’s “Hella Good” by No Doubt, but the Oxford English Dictionary traces it 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.” “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 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.” It’s hard to think of “helluva” without recalling “heckuva,” a word that achieved its greatest notoriety in 2005 post-Hurricane Katrina, when President Bush praised FEMA 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. Grant Barrett traces its history to a sports article and the sentence “We had a hecka season.”

Whether “hella” attains metric status or not—details on the gnarly process of acceptance can be found here—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, like a commenter who wrote “Whenever I hear someone say 'hella this' or 'hella that', I just want to pop them upside the head.” on the San Francisco Gate site in response to a story about the potential 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 whackamole with new words and meanings: At the risk of earning a head-popping myself, that job is hella futile.

Illustration by Tiffany Huang.