A Hella Cool New Dictionary Entry

By Mark Nichol

Merriam-Webster, publisher of the print and online dictionary that is perhaps most widely consulted by wordsmiths in the United States, has made what some may consider an audacious decision: Hella is now officially a member of the English language.

As an aficionado of etymology, I have always been pleased to have been near a word’s geographical and chronological epicenter; that’s something not everybody can boast of. Having lived near Silicon Valley, and having worked at Wired magazine during its early years, I often rubbed shoulders with neologisms back in the day. Hella is near and dear to my heart because it was the first fledgling word I recognized as such.

It’s unofficially been part of the lexicon for at least four decades; I first heard it in the late 1980s, spoken by white children in Berkeley who likely had overheard black classmates use it. They, in turn, had heard it from older siblings or neighbors, who had by then been using it for years. (That’s an intriguing case study for those interested in the distinction between a word’s likely birthdate and its date of first attested, or documented, use; hella was first attested in 1987. Another curious detail is that the Oxford English Dictionary welcomed hella in 2002, fourteen years before a dictionary across the Pond gave it the thumbs-up.)

Although I was an adult by then, I immediately grew fond of the word, a contraction of “hell of a” and “hell of a lot of” that modifies not nouns, like the phrases from which it came, but adjectives. It’s an intensifier, as seen in the headline for this post.

But, you may splutter, hella is such an uncouth word! It sullies the dictionary with its presence. Well, so does the next Merriam-Webster entry, hellaballoo (a variation of hullabaloo, meaning “uproar”), a hick of a word if I ever saw one, though it’s older than the United States. And hellacious (“very difficult, large, or powerful”), which follows hellaballoo and goes back at least a hundred years, is a country-bumpkin cousin of hella.

Why are these and so many other louche locutions in the dictionary? Because that’s what a dictionary is for—it is a record of our language’s astonishingly rich, ripe diversity. That may be a bit confusing for those who consider a dictionary to be a guide, not a museum, but hellacious isn’t exactly a dusty, brittle artifact: Five years ago, it popped up in the title of a video game, Hellacious Acres: The Case of John Glass, and it’s available for anyone who needs a rip-snorting adjective. And though I’d steer around hellaballoo, I can easily imagine using the original from which it is derived to humorously describe a cacophonous commotion.

And hella? It may not belong in a business report, a textbook, or an academic journal (except for one about linguistics). But it has its place in many media: blogs, young-adult novels, youth-culture publications, and even general-circulation periodicals. If you need it, use it.

The same goes for two other neologisms that have been awarded the Merriam-Webster badge of validity: TMI (an initialism abbreviated from “too much information”) and FOMO (an acronym derived from “fear of missing out”). (The distinction between initialisms and acronyms is that the former are pronounced letter by letter and the latter are pronounced as words.)

It intrigued me that although I’ve been titillated for years by TMI—a protestation in response to being told more personal details than one wants to hear—I had never heard of the abbreviation for a phrase pertaining to anxiety about not being part of stimulating and/or trendy experiences. That term’s existence is a telling commentary about our increasingly vapid culture, but it’s also hella cool. (I know—irony alert!)

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4 Responses to “A Hella Cool New Dictionary Entry”

  • John Moriarty

    Just a side note on your comment re: acronyms and initialisms.

    ” (The distinction between initialisms and acronyms is that the former are pronounced letter by letter and the latter are pronounced as words.)”

    I am noticing that there isn’t a bright-line distinction between the two in certain cases. In photography, for example, younger people are making what had once been an initialism “ISO”* into an acronym.

    In another instance the contraction “JPEG”** is both. The first letter, “J”, is pronounced separately, while the “PEG” is pronounced as a word.

    *ISO is the abbreviation for the International Organization for Standardization. The ISO is a non-governmental organization that develops and publishes international standards.

    **JPEG (also, JPG) is the abbreviation for Joint Photographic Experts Group.

  • Roberta B.

    So, I learned a new word………louche, as in a “louche locution.” I love the alliteration, too, to make the point.

    Also, to my recollection (which right now is not very good), the “g” in the term jpg stands for “graphic” just like “pdf” stands “portable document format.” However, your point is well taken that it is a commonly used term pronounced partially as an initialialism and partially as an acronym.

  • Agua Caliente

    During my 40 years working in technology I feel like I have almost always heard “ISO” pronounced as a word. Oddly enough, just late last week I heard ASCII (ISO/IEC 8859) repeatedly stated as “American Standard Code for Information Interchange,” which it is—although it is usually stated as “ASK-ee.”

    Here’s blended init/acro from tech: the “mkdir” command.
    It’s pretty much what it looks like: MAKE a DIRECTORY. Mainly pronounced “MAKE-dir”—not m-k-dir.

    Another funky one from tech is SQL (Structured Query Language). This gets a couple of pronunciations: S-Q-L is one…but more commonly, sequel.

    I admit to being fond of initialisms, acronyms, and jargon in general. Sometimes, though, I like to use the actual word or words: Los Angeles, not usually LA…but always LAX.

  • venqax

    I have no objection to either slang or new words, so long as it is clearly noted that the first do “not belong in a business report, a textbook, or an academic journal”, or other formal, serious contexts. Dictionaries—and MW is among the worst felons here—are do a very poor job of noting those distinctions. As to, “that’s what a dictionary is for—it is a record of our language’s astonishingly rich, ripe diversity. That may be a bit confusing for those who consider a dictionary to be a guide,” I side with Robert Hartwell Fiske’s condemnation of “laxicographers” and say that dictionaries do in fact have an obligation to do more than just re-regurgitate whatever monsters got gurgitated to begin without any critical judgment. I do recall one source, though I can’t remember what it was, that perfectly treated the problem of recognizing what was actually being said while also appropriately weighing it:
    irregardless: illiterate.

    I am personally fine with acronyms so long as they conform to the rules of English words. NATO, SCUBA, etc. work fine. ASCII does not because Cs before Is are soft, not hard. That acronym gives you assee, being generous, not askee. Sorry, acronymity, acronymness, nor acronymocity give you license to break the rules. And sometimes the acronym is just too forced to qualify. Sequel for SQL (Structured Query Language)? Sorry. There is no E to create the acronym from. An acronym is created from the words it stands in for, not out of clay. Struquel or stuquel, pronounced stroo– or stooquel would work. I am a standard bearer! (STANBEA)

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