Medieval ontology on the streets of Oakland?

« previous post | next post »

A recent Twitter exchange between William Gibson and Simon Max Hill:

Wouldn't it be wonderful if a term from high philosophy had really penetrated the street slang of Oakland? Alas, it looks like a case of false cognates.

First, haecceity (pronounced /hɛkˈsi:ɪti/), as defined by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

First proposed by John Duns Scotus (1266–1308), a haecceity is a non-qualitative property responsible for individuation. As understood by Scotus, a haecceity is not a bare particular in the sense of something underlying qualities. It is, rather, a non-qualitative property of a substance or thing: it is a “thisness” (a haecceitas, from the Latin haec, meaning “this”) as opposed to a “whatness” (a quidditas, from the Latin quid, meaning “what”).

While its companion quiddity did enter more common usage (as in "quirks and quiddities," where quiddity means 'quibble'), I don't think haecceity has made it very far out of philosophical circles.

Now for the Oakland slang: it's pronounced something like /ˈhɛksɪti/ (with intervocalic /t/ typically reduced to an alveolar flap [ɾ]) and can be spelled in a variety of ways, including hecksitty, hecksity, and hecksiddy. Berkeley-bred Jorma Taccone of the sketch comedy troupe The Lonely Island spells it as hecksadee:

And Simon Max Hill himself spelled it as hexiddy when he entered the word into Urban Dictionary in 2007:

This is an intensifier, commonly referring to a great number of a thing or a great intensity of an experience.
This is an alternate for the word "hella", the Northern California slang especially prevalent in the Bay Area. Scholars, drunks and amateur librarians suggest that the word originated in stricter households where the word "hella" was considered inappropriate due to the word "hell" being involved.
"You stabbed him twice with a pencil and ganked his Now'n'Laters? That's hexiddy raw, cuz."
by simon max hill December 05, 2007

As Hill suggests, the term owes its roots to the Bay Area slang intensifier hella and its more polite cousin hecka. Hella has been well studied — see, for instance, "Hella Nor Cal or Totally So Cal? The Perceptual Dialectology of California" (Mary Bucholz et al., Journal of English Linguistics), "Northern Californian English: Hella Different?" (Asya Pereltsvaig, GeoCurrents), and "Hella Gets Huge" (Mark Peters, Good). Recently, hella has also been examined dialectologically on Twitter: see "A Latent Variable Model for Geographic Lexical Variation" (Jacob Eisenstein et al., EMNLP 2010) and "Examining Large-Scale Regional Variation Through Online Geotagged Corpora" (Brice Russ, ADS 2012).

As for hecka, Grant Barrett traced it back to 1985 on his Double-Tongued Dictionary site, though that example ("We had a hecka season") seems to be a shortened form of heckuva. The more typical adverbial intensifier ('very') appears as early as 1987 in the Prince song "U Got The Look" (featuring Sheena Easton): "Your face is jammin' / Your body's hecka slammin'." Pamela Munro's 1989 book Slang U. shows it was already in common use among UCLA students by then (example: "You're still studying at this hour? It's hecka late").

From hecka it's a small step to hecksa (presumably via the "-s" suffixation that creates such emphatic forms as hells yeah/no). Again from Urban Dictionary:

Used like hecka(see Hecka) but for a much stronger application, or when trying to really get your point across. Traced to Tsubouchi, and the East Bay.
1st person "Did you see that flipped over car on the freeway? That was hecka crazy!"
2nd person "No,that shit was on fire too, it was HECKSA crazy!!"

by guru_ January 10, 2006

And from hecksa we can get to hecksit(t)y by suffixing it with -it(t)y. That suffix shows up occasionally in such colloquialisms as uppity and biggity. For some it may suggest the -ity/-ety found in such reduplicated forms as flippity-flop or blankety-blank. Most likely it's a playful elaboration akin to hiphop's "[IZ]-infixation," the kind of elaboration that allowed Sean Combs to transmute his "Puff Daddy" nickname to "P. Diddy." (Compare the -iggity ending that allows no doubt to become no diggity, or wack to become the reduplicated wiggity-wack. I also hear an echo of saditty, old African-American slang for 'snobbish, conceited.') However it was formed, there's no apparent connection to the nominalizing suffix -ity indicating a state or condition, which we find at the end of haecceity. And that's just about enough thisness for now.

(Hat tip, Jeff Martin.)



  1. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 5, 2014 @ 1:30 pm

    "Now'n'Laters" are apparently officially called "Now and Laters". In my childhood in suburban Cleveland, white kids pronounced that "Now or Laters" (primary accent on the "Now") and black kids pronounced it like "annihilators" without the first syllable. According to Michael Chabon in "Telegraph Avenue", that's still the AAVE pronunciation in Oakland.

  2. simon max hill said,

    February 5, 2014 @ 1:31 pm

    I love when people with more smarts than me can pick up a ball and run with it! This is great. Also, damn but Haecceity is a great word. I even like "thisness" a lot.

    p.s. Max is actually my middle name and Hill is my last name.

    [(bgz) Fixed.]

  3. simon max hill said,

    February 5, 2014 @ 3:05 pm

    Heh. I like that you fixed my name and also the typo in my comment! Strong work.

  4. maidhc said,

    February 5, 2014 @ 5:00 pm

    I propose an alternative origin theory — Silicon Valley. Where the ordinary plebes do decimal arithmetic, the with-it clued-in people use hexadecimal arithmetic. So naturally this distinction would expand to other areas. It's like the amp in "Spinal Tap" that goes to 11. A decimal digit can represent only 10 values, but a hexadecimal digit can represent 16. Calling someone "hexacrazy" would mean they are at 160% of normal craziness level.

  5. Daniel Barkalow said,

    February 5, 2014 @ 5:13 pm

    I like the image of kids claiming that something was so extreme that it has a quality which distinguishes it from other things of the same type. "This wasn't just a great episode of Jeopardy!; years from now, I'll be able to reference Ken Jennings's wrong answer to tonight's question about a long-handled gardening tool. It was haecceity funny." And, of course, philosophers would rail at people using it inappropriately to describe (for example) Jimmy Fallon being very entertaining, but not unlike how he usually is.

  6. James said,

    February 5, 2014 @ 5:55 pm

    I first ran across this word–the Latin one, not the Oaklandish variety–in a book review by the linguistically florid John Clute. That encounter inspired a couple of blog posts, the first focusing on the increasing (or so it seemed to me) use of the affirmative "this" on the internet. Is that something that's gotten e-ink at Language Log before?

    More on what I'm talking about in one or the other of those posts.

  7. David P said,

    February 6, 2014 @ 9:12 pm

    "I don't think haecceity has made it very far out of philosophical circles."

    Well, there is J.V. Cunningham's poem "Haecceity":

    Evil is any this or this
    Pursued beyond hypothesis.

    It is the scribbling of affection
    On the blank pages of perfection.

    Evil is presentness bereaved
    Of all the futures it conceived,

    Wilful and realized restriction
    Of the insatiate forms of fiction.

    It is this poem, or this act,
    It is this absolute of fact.

  8. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 7, 2014 @ 12:22 pm

    Here's a 21st century usage:

  9. Mark Dunan said,

    February 7, 2014 @ 12:31 pm

    "Calling someone "hexacrazy" would mean they are at 160% of normal craziness level."

    Wouldn't it be 256%?

  10. Nathan Straub said,

    February 27, 2014 @ 12:36 am

    I've never heard the word "hecksiddy" before, but could it come from a juxtaposition of "heck" and "city"? Growing up in early 1990s Fallbrook, CA (near San Diego), I remember a neighbor boy saying his room was "fly city", meaning it had a lot of flies in it. I assumed that the construction "X city" meant someplace or something characterized by X in an extreme way (enough to be named after X if it were a city).

    Placing "heck" in the slot as a replacement for "hell", you have two slang terms merging together: "(a) hell of a Y" > "(a) heck of a Y" > "hella/hecka Y" meaning a great Y, merges with "X city" meaning Y extremely characterized by X, to form "heck city" > "hecksiddy" meaning "extremely great".

    There's my alternative to the "-city" suffix explanation. Of course, they might have been mutually influencing…

RSS feed for comments on this post

Leave a Comment