Hell of slow

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From today's Scary Go Round:

So is "hell of" a British re-/mis- interpretation of hella? Or an older, independent usage? Or even hella's secret source?

The OED's earliest citation for hella as an intensifier of adjectives is from 1991:

1991   E. Currie Dope & Trouble ii. vii. 162   There's a lot of people out there that are hella smart, they could be something in life.

But surely it's older than that.

I don't have time for any more hella sleuthing this morning, but some commenters will doubtless get us all caught up.



47 Comments

  1. Stan Carey said,

    April 4, 2017 @ 8:02 am

    Geoff Nunberg says it "emerged somewhere in Northern California around the late 1970s".

  2. Christian Wilkie said,

    April 4, 2017 @ 8:11 am

    The "hell of" over-interpretation appeared in the US online comic Achewood in 2004. http://achewood.com/index.php?date=12202004

  3. Rod Johnson said,

    April 4, 2017 @ 8:11 am

    "Hell of" is a very common Achewood expression:

    http://www.achewood.com/index.php?date=08292006

    http://www.achewood.com/index.php?date=07192004

  4. Daniel Currie Hall said,

    April 4, 2017 @ 8:15 am

    I would just like to say that I enjoyed this post triply—as a linguist, as a longtime reader of Scary Go Round, and as a nephew of Elliott Currie.

  5. Andrew Marsden said,

    April 4, 2017 @ 8:19 am

    I've never looked into it, but I've always read "hella" modifying nouns as a contraction of "hell of a lot of", and that its use intensifying adjectives was just an extension of that.

    Whether that's correct or not, I'm not sure – as I said, I have never looked into it.

    Regardless, I'm 22 and live in the UK, and I feel like I only came into contact with "hella" within the past five years, so it feels that this could go either way, on the comic front.

    Okay, enough procrastinating, I need to get back to work.

  6. Jessica Coles said,

    April 4, 2017 @ 8:41 am

    If I had to guess, I'd say John Allison picked it up from fellow-webcartoonist Chris Onstad (creator of Achewood).
    http://www.ohnorobot.com/index.php?comic=636&s=Hell+of&search=Find

  7. Cervantes said,

    April 4, 2017 @ 8:48 am

    Presumably a contraction of "hell of a lot."

  8. languagehat said,

    April 4, 2017 @ 8:48 am

    From Stan's link:

    In early years, Bay Area youth debated whether the slang word was hella or actually "hell of."

    In Berkeley, the debate could get quite heated, says punk rocker Frank Portman. In 1997, he wrote a song called "Hell of Dumb," poking fun at the issue with his band the Mr. T. Experience. He thinks the hella vs. hell of debate goes back to 1983.

    "It was always very clear that it was hell of. It was not hella and if anyone ever said hella, which sometimes people did, they would always correct you with the attitude of a school marm correcting your grammar," Portman says.

    I always assumed it was from "hell of"; what else could it be?

    [(myl) The OED says:

    Etymology: Probably shortened < either helluva adj. or hellacious adj. With use as adverb compare adverbial use at hellacious adj. and also hellish adv.

    None of the proposed sources seem compelling to me.]

  9. Vance Maverick said,

    April 4, 2017 @ 8:48 am

    Best I could do with Google Books was a couple of "hella fine" from the late '80s, including the dissertation Nunberg references.

  10. Vance Maverick said,

    April 4, 2017 @ 8:54 am

    Saying that the word is/was "from 'hell of'" is pretty unhelpful given that "hell of" wasn't used the same way.

  11. rjp said,

    April 4, 2017 @ 8:59 am

    Can't say that I've heard "hell of" except as part of "hell of a" before. (UK, English, middle-aged.)

  12. languagehat said,

    April 4, 2017 @ 9:08 am

    given that "hell of" wasn't used the same way.

    Did you read the passage I quoted?

  13. Guy said,

    April 4, 2017 @ 9:16 am

    As a native hella speaker I can say I've always understood it as originating from "hell of", although I think it would be notable if the /v/ were actually pronounced (and there were no "a" following).

  14. Ben Zimmer said,

    April 4, 2017 @ 9:20 am

    The earliest example I've found of hella in print is from an Aug. 1986 interview with James Hetfield of Metallica (a few years after the band had moved to the East Bay).

    Later in 1986, Oakland rapper Too $hort used it on his album "Raw, Uncut and X-Rated." More in this recent Hoodline article.

  15. Stan Carey said,

    April 4, 2017 @ 9:34 am

    GDoS says hella comes from helluva; the smushed form makes the (probable) derivation a bit more visible.

  16. Robin Melnick said,

    April 4, 2017 @ 9:40 am

    I distinctly recall my first encounter with and impressions of "hella" in Berkeley in 1981, in the speech of my frosh-year girlfriend, an East Bay Area local (specifically from Alameda). It seemed equally new to my fellow (mostly out-of-towner) dorm residents at the time, but even one from San Francisco, just across the Bay. In my gf's speech, my impression of the time was that it was limited to adj-modifying cases such as "That was a hella good party." I recall asking her about this strange word and she specifically understood it as contraction of "hell of a". Now that's only the understanding/usage of one then-18-year-old local, but there you have it, for what it's worth.

  17. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 4, 2017 @ 9:43 am

    While I don't question the late '70's origin (if that's the date of the conversation about the "hella fine" boyfriend quoted in that '87 dissertation), I think it must have taken a while to disseminate out from its specific subculture(s) of origin to generic/default NorCal teenspeak. As best as I can recall, it was not used at all by any of the young people from Northern Cal I knew as an undergraduate in the mid-80's (including a roommate who'd grown up in Oakland and came east for college the same year Hetfield moved up to the East Bay from SoCal) – by contrast some of the Boston kids I knew in college used "wicked" as an intensifier, some of the SoCal kids had lexical bits of surfer-dude/valley-girl jargon in their idiolects, etc., so it wasn't *just* that the elite-college admissions process sorted for nerdy prescriptivists less likely to exhibit vernacular regionalisms, although I can't rule that out as a complicating factor.

  18. TONY THORNE said,

    April 4, 2017 @ 9:48 am

    Combination 'hellacool' popular among US teens/valleygirls 1987/8. I surmised then it was influenced by 'hellacious' and perhaps 'mega' as prefix. 'Hellov' was shortlived (?) variant.

  19. Spectre-7 said,

    April 4, 2017 @ 9:49 am

    Being a Bay Area native (and native hella user) who grew up in the '80s, seeing hell of there struck me as foreign and ungrammatical. The author is surely a poser. ;)

  20. Ariel Goldberg said,

    April 4, 2017 @ 9:55 am

    Ben, it's not quite the same thing as having hella quoted in print but in 2000, Rob Turner wrote an article for Money magazine where he says "I was, in the parlance of the day, hella rich", referring to 20 years earlier (1980).

    Stocks are for Kids. By: Turner, Rob, Money, Apr2000, Vol. 29, Issue 4

    "When I was 12, my dad gave me 10 shares of IBM. Pointing to the columns of tiny numbers in the business section of the Sacramento Bee, he explained that at $66 a share, the total cash value of my "portfolio," were I to sell, was $660. As in six hundred and sixty dollars. Cash money. Mine. All mine. I was giddy, my orthodontia flashing for the world to see. The potential impact on my Hot Wheels collection was not to be underestimated. I was, in the parlance of the day, hella rich."

    But I never sold, and thanks to 20 years of stock splits and dividend reinvestment, my stake in Big Blue (as I'm now fond of calling it) is valued at nearly $10,000.

  21. Guy said,

    April 4, 2017 @ 10:09 am

    @J.W. Brewer

    My experience as an undergraduate at Berkeley was that many of us natives stopped saying "hella" (at least with "foreigners") within the first week, despite there being something near a critical mass of us, because of scorn and confusion from people outside the Bay Area. Though my experience was later than the 70's, so I can't vouch for timing from personal experience.

  22. Matt Henry said,

    April 4, 2017 @ 10:27 am

    The beloved (by me) Berkeley-based pop-punk band, The Mr. T Experience, released the song "Hell of Dumb" in 1997. Certainly not the first usage, but it does pair the "hell of" spelling and "hella" pronunciation.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-R_TW_ZqHw4

  23. J. Goard said,

    April 4, 2017 @ 10:28 am

    As a Northern Californian native "hella" speaker, *of course* "hella" is "hell of", and could be spelled out as such for extreme emphasis. It patterns distributionally with "sorta" and "kinda", after all!

  24. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 4, 2017 @ 10:45 am

    Guy's point is a fair one, and I guess I wasn't always walking around campus with a t-shirt saying "I'm a linguistics major interested in regional variation in teenage slang; please don't self-censor your idiolect in my presence." But I find it a bit counterintuitive that Bay area kids at Berkeley, of all places, would have felt self-conscious rather than self-confident about their regionalisms. I could have contrasted my examples of SoCal/Boston kids using their regionalisms with examples of kids from Texas/Georgia trying to minimize/standardize their regional accents, but I don't think of Northern California regionalisms as generally stigmatized in the U.S., at least outside "goofy hippie talking about chakras and cosmic vibrations" sort of contexts.

  25. Robin Melnick said,

    April 4, 2017 @ 11:05 am

    Anyone here have a "native" or by-encounter account prior to 1980? I don't doubt that it later came to be (re)analyzed as deriving from "hell of", but the earliest accounts above–1977 "hella fine boyfriend" and my own 1981 encounter with "hella good party" (see my earlier comment above), as well as the explicit account of my native speaker friend at that time (1981)–support the contracted "hell of a" origination. Any other contemporaneous (pre-1980) data to contradict that interpretation? (Again, seems clear that the later understanding may have come to be contracted "hell of", but my hypothesis–admittedly based on incredibly small sample!–is that its first analysis / pre-1980 origin was "hell of a".

  26. Vance Maverick said,

    April 4, 2017 @ 11:36 am

    @languagehat, you're right. He's certainly attesting what I claimed wasn't attested.

    Personally, I heard "hella" as an intensifier from a teenage relative from Missouri about 1980. And I've never heard "hell of cold" as audibly distinct from "hella cold". But that's just me, and it's not in print.

  27. Dr. Frank said,

    April 4, 2017 @ 11:56 am

    http://www.doktorfrank.com/archives/2017/04/its_hell_of_you.html

  28. Sili said,

    April 4, 2017 @ 12:09 pm

    Not so much origins as future directions. Around the same time I first encountered the word a few years back, someone mentioned that among California physicists there was then a suggestion that "hella" should always be used in place of the next unassigned SI-prefix. Currently 10^21. I can't decide if it works in the other direction or not.

  29. Sili said,

    April 4, 2017 @ 12:16 pm

    Ah, no. 10^27. But what's a million between friends.

  30. Guy said,

    April 4, 2017 @ 12:22 pm

    @J W Brewer

    I don't think the motive for suppression was regional shame so much as a desire to avoid reigniting the usual semi-joking arguments about the relative merits of LA versus the Bay Area (a certain segment of people from LA liked to be very vocal about how much better they liked it there, and vice versa for people from the Bay Area) and the arguments could be tiring. It's possible a different dynamic would exist in an environment with fewer Californians, where any Californian regionalism would tend to have more cultural cachet.

  31. Guy said,

    April 4, 2017 @ 12:34 pm

    It also occurs to me that the cultural pressures might actually operate to encourage regional pride when there are slightly negative stereotypes associated with the region, similar to the way reclamation of slurs works (e.g. with Boston, self-described "Massholes") whereas a more perceivedly "standard" dialect in the US is notable for being culturally unmarked, so there may be pressure to curate that unmarkedness.

  32. Ben Zimmer said,

    April 4, 2017 @ 1:06 pm

    I'm glad that (Dr.) Frank Portman himself (who wrote the Mr. T. Experience song "Hell of Dumb") has chimed in, with a link to his blog (which looks charmingly like Language Log pre-2008).

  33. Jeff Dean said,

    April 4, 2017 @ 1:07 pm

    I lived in Oakland (junior instructor at Cal, coming from DC by way of Philadelphia and Chicago) in 1984-6, and can't remember hearing this usage. If I did, my mind must have processed it as "helluva" (hell of a). But I'm a musicologist, and I tend to notice what I hear. Guy is probably reporting accurately. The local idiom was certainly more obvious at UCLA, where I went next (also for just 2 years).

  34. Y said,

    April 4, 2017 @ 2:03 pm

    The song Zelda, by Pete Townshend, supposedly written in 1983, has
    Jackie's on the craving
    Rabbits on the raving
    Their on the way with a tooth force
    hella frat while the cats gone

    I can't say what hella frat means.

    [(myl) "Hell of a rat"?]

  35. David Morris said,

    April 4, 2017 @ 4:50 pm

    Did people ever say 'hell of slow' or 'hell of a slow' or 'hell of a lot of slow' etc?

  36. Avi Rappoport said,

    April 4, 2017 @ 10:03 pm

    I went to Berkeley High in the 70s, SF State and Cal in the 80s, never heard "hella". I distinctly remember being surprised my kid, then in a Berkeley public elementary school, started saying it (and "hecka") in the mid-late 90s.

  37. Beth C. said,

    April 4, 2017 @ 10:39 pm

    I grew up in the East Bay Area and it was common speak by the time I started elementary school in '82. I have no idea when I first heard it, I was too young to remember.

  38. Chas Belov said,

    April 5, 2017 @ 12:27 am

    I am well above the hella or even hecka age demographic. I seem to recall not hearing about it until the '90s, although I would totally believe it would have been earlier. I believe it may have been in a San Francisco youth newspaper, along with other youth slang (the one that I remember is "sideways" for "bye," which I loved; most likely long since disappeared). Then again it could be two separate memories fused together. Then again, someone may have told me about it, especially based on the last set below.

    If "hella" did come from "hell of" or "hell of a/helluva", it took on a grammatical life of its own.

    It's hella cold out today.
    *It's hell of cold out today.
    *It's hell of a cold out today.
    *It's helluva cold out today.

    The party was hella.
    *The party was hell of.
    *The party was hell of a.
    *The party was helluva.

  39. Chas Belov said,

    April 5, 2017 @ 12:28 am

    For clarity, the "it" referent is to that of my learning of the existence of "hella" as a word.

  40. Aaron said,

    April 5, 2017 @ 3:10 am

    When I moved from LA to Berkeley to go to college in 1986, "hell of" was already in common use. I very much remember it seeming odd to me at first and it taking a while for me to feel comfortable using it myself.

    The most common usage at the time was as part of the phrase "hell of icy," which I understood to be pretty much synonymous with the more familiar (to me) Val-speak phrase "fuckin' rad".

    I remember when people started, somewhat self-consciously and half-jokingly, pronouncing "hell of" as one word "helluv," and I think I even saw it written that way occasionally, in zines and such. It wasn't until a bit later that it turned into "hella."

  41. Terry Hunt said,

    April 5, 2017 @ 9:54 am

    Independent of the origin and variations of the expression(s) in the real world, the character Shelley Winters here using it is sometimes portrayed by the comic's writer John Allison as getting words and facts wrong (earlier in the storyline she often mispronounced "demon" as "demond", for example).
    Shelley is talking to Lottie (Charlotte Grote) who is a generation younger, and may be trying to use what she thinks is a contemporary (to Lottie) expression and getting it wrong.

  42. Y said,

    April 5, 2017 @ 12:44 pm

    The big lyrics databases don't let you sort or filter by date, unfortunately, but it looks like the early uses of hella are mostly by rap artists, mostly not from the Bay Area. For example, Snoop [olim Doggy] Dogg, Living like a baller loc / Having money and blowing hella chronic smoke, from Murder Was the Case (Doggystyle, 1994).

    I wonder if the expression came from some variety of AAVE into (not necessarily AA) East Bay slang.

  43. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 5, 2017 @ 1:28 pm

    I should perhaps clarify that the possible late '70's usage I mentioned above was not (contrary to the reasonable assumption Robin Melnick seems to have made based on what I wrote) the literal three-word sequence "hella fine boyfriend" but free-standing "hella fine" referring to an individual who seemed in context probably to be a boyfriend. The entire exchange (between two girls smoking a joint in a high school bathroom) is quoted in the 1987-published dissertation by Powers as: "Shit, I'll probably go over my nigga's house." Who you nigga?" "Tom." "Tom who?" "Tom Sanders. He don't go here. He live up in Baytown." "I probably know him." "You probably do. He light and hella fine." "Hmm."

    So while "hella fine boyfriend," like "hella good party," could easily be reanalyzed as "helluva fine/good boyfriend/party," swapping in "helluva" doesn't work in the actual sentence, at least not unless the relevant variety of English has different syntactic rules for the permissible use of "helluva" than any variety I'm familiar with.

    If the late '70's dating for this girls' bathroom dialogue is correct (snippet view on the google books version has prevented me from being sure about that), Mr. Sanders might perhaps be in his mid-to-late fifties by now. Perhaps some enterprising lexicographer could track him down and ascertain if he is still hella fine. It does seem like it ought to be some sort of impressive distinction to have been the young man referred to as "hella fine" in the earliest-known attestation of the term, if indeed it can't be antedated.

  44. chh said,

    April 5, 2017 @ 2:15 pm

    Just to loop Achewood back into this conversation, since it was also the first thing I thought of as soon as I saw the post, here's a strip that has that interesting 'of' that links an attribute and DP in phrases like "too big of a house". I think what Ray says is only marginally grammatical, because of the presence 'way' instead of 'too' or 'so'.

    http://achewood.com/index.php?date=11022007

    "That is way smart of an analogy."

    What strikes me as familiar about the 'hell of' -> 'hella' idea is that there are some other semi-fixed adverbial constructions with 'of' like "some kind of wonderful", where the thing to the right of 'of' is an adjective. I haven't seen early examples of 'hell of' used that way though.

  45. Lily said,

    April 11, 2017 @ 3:41 am

    As a native speaker also (born late 1970s SF) it's def "hell of". The prototypic example:

    He's hella fine.

  46. Lily said,

    April 11, 2017 @ 3:44 am

    sorry just noticed J. Brewer already pointed out the a "hella fine" text case. Interesting

  47. Philip Taylor said,

    April 16, 2017 @ 8:02 am

    [Native British speaker, sub-RP, age 70+] I have never before encountered "hella", and the nearest equivalent Br.E. idiom that comes to mind is "hellish" ("you kids were being hellish slow"). "Gonna", "sorta", "kinda", etc., I loathe and detest, almost certainly because to me they exemplify what my late mother would have called "lazy speech", something that she was very keen to eliminate from my idiolect.

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