In this episode, I interview Helen, a native Californian who currently lives in the Bay Area and works with equity and human rights issues, working to provide housing for people in her community to find stability and to thrive.  Helen majored in Ethnic Studies at the University of California-Berkley and then went on to get a Master’s in Education in Curriculum & Instruction with a focus in trauma and resilience studies.  In this episode, Helen tells us about a number of slang words that are commonly spoken and heard in the Bay Area.  She helps us think about the importance of becoming more aware and conscious of inclusive language that takes into account people of diverse genders, races, and ability levels that isn’t derogatory and that doesn’t reinforce structures of oppression. In this interview we get insight on how powerful and creative language is and how it is constantly transforming and changing based on the dynamic surroundings. 


Read the Transcript

Anne: Hey, friends, welcome to the American Slang Podcast, where we will explore language and culture in different regions of the United States. Slang is a type of informal language that’s typically spoken in a certain area or by a group of people. Culture is dynamic. Language is dynamic. And in this podcast, we will explore the connections between them and the way new words and expressions emerge in different places in the United States.

I’m Anne. I’m an online English teacher, and I specialize in exam preparation. You can find more out about my courses and classes on my website. And in today’s interview, we are focusing on West Coast slang. I interview Helen, a native Californian who tells us some incredible stories and shares some slang words from her neck of the woods in the Bay Area. So, without further ado, let’s get started with today’s episode.

Anne: Hello, everyone, and welcome. Today we will be talking with Helen about West Coast slang. Helen grew up in California, and she lives there now as well. She lives in the Bay Area. She studied ethnic studies at UC Berkeley and she’s going to tell us a little bit about some common slang words that you would hear in the Bay Area and in California. So let’s get started.

Anne: Helen, tell us a little bit about your work…maybe you could just introduce us and let us know about your work. Tell us about the kind of work that you do. Sure. Yeah.

Helen: Well, so I work in social services. Unfortunately, um where I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, there is a huge population of people who are unhoused, and it’s a massive problem. So, I work with an organization that works with families that are unhoused. So, for the last three and a half years, I’ve been a case manager, working with families who are transitioning out of homelessness into housing, providing case management to help them stabilize while we provide a rental subsidy. And now I’m moving into a new role where I’m going to help build out partnerships with other organizations to provide more comprehensive services for the families who are working with us.

Anne: So the Bay Area is such a dynamic place. There are huge problems and social issues that you kind of work with and deal with on a day to day basis. But there’s also great creativity, right. And we see linguistic creativity and we see cultural diversity. So I think that kind of is a unique aspect of the city. Right? Yeah.

Helen: It’s a really fascinating place to live. It’s surrounded by so much natural beauty just in every single direction. There are different incredible parks and just stunning places to go, camping and hiking and kayaking. And then the cities are really interesting, too. You know, it all kind of centered around San Francisco, but then the whole surrounding area. There are so many people in all these surrounding cities, and there’s just a lot going on, people from so many different countries and a lot of different languages spoken, a lot of art, a lot of universities, students coming. And. Yeah, it’s a really interesting place.

Anne: That’s part of what you love about living there. Right. You’re never bord. Right. There’s always interesting things to help. Like, you are part of many organizations, so that’s really cool. Yeah. Well, today we want to kind of get into some slang words that are typically used on the West Coast and in California. So let’s get started with the first one, which is “hella.” Uh right. Tell us a little bit about the word “hella”, uh and where you would hear it or in what kind of context.

Helen: “Hella” is a classic California word. Um it means very or a lot of.  So you could say there are “hella” people here. Um you could also say there are hella. And that would mean there are a lot.  You could say this is hella good. Um it’s used in a lot of different ways. It’s really funny because my name is Helen, and when I first moved to the Bay Area, I thought I was hearing people calling my name all the time, but they were saying “hella.” So I was always turning around because I thought people were saying Helen.

Anne: That is a hilarious story. Are you serious? Yeah.

Helen:  But um I think that “hella” originates from African American Vernacular English, which is an important dialect of English that is very influential in the English language, especially American English. So, I don’t know the specific history of it, but I’m pretty sure that that’s where it comes from. Oakland is across the Bay from San Francisco, and it is a historically black city with a lot of really amazing black culture. And so a lot of African American Vernacular English has permeated the language of the Bay Area.

Anne: That’s really helpful to know. And you would say, for example, to use “hella” in a sentence, you would just say like, oh, it’s “hella” good, it’s a “hella” good movie or “hella” cold outside.

Helen: Uh and could you use “hecka” if you didn’t want to say “hella”? Like if you’re against using the word hell, you say “hecka” good. Yeah. So that’s one that people also use.

Hellen: I’ve heard it especially around kids when people don’t want to say the word hell.

Helen: Right. So they say heck. You use it the same way, but It usually kind of cracks me up. And then sometimes people say, “heck of.”

Anne: To be funny. They would say, “That’s heck of good.”

Helen: No, it’s just like they are weird. Yeah. But you can kind of play around with it. It could be kind of funny uh creative, right?

Helen: Yeah. People say it all the time.

Helen: Yeah.

Helen: For so many different reasons. You could say like, “Oh, yeah, I was like looking at this ant colony and there were just hella.”

Anne: Yeah. So it’s just kind of cutting it off. But saying a lot more just in one word.

Helen: It can just mean a lot.

Anne: Uh okay. Yeah. I uh definitely heard that all the time. I didn’t feel ever very comfortable using it just because to me it sounded so strong. Right. I would be like, that is very nice. Okay. So that is hella. Okay.

Anne: And the next one we’re going to talk about is gnarly. This is a quintessential California word, right. gnarly. This comes from the surfer slang. In the 1960s, it used to describe a wave that was very messy. Gnarly, curly waves for surfers that were difficult to ride. So it’s used nowadays to describe something that’s really cool. Right. Or no.

Helen: So it’s interesting because it can either be used to mean really excellent or cool or interesting or really bad. Really good or really bad.

Helen: Yeah, that’s a good point. It could be either way.

Helen: So you could say, I just took a test and it was gnarly. Like that was a really hard test. Uh or you could say, we had a gnarly time going to the beach or we had a gnarly time doing something. It just depends. You have to listen to contact clues.

Anne: Yeah.

Helen: It’s not used as much now as it was. I want to say, like in the 70s or 80s or something, but I definitely hear people. I say it all the time.

Anne: Yeah. And I think, like, we were talking about before slang, the retro words could be coming back used more commonly. Right.

Helen: And then another thing is, in the Bay Area, it’s such a diverse and really liberal community. And so a lot of people are very focused on wanting to make language inclusive of people of all abilities and genders and sexualities. So people try to be really creative in coming up with words instead of using the word crazy, which is considered like an ableist word because it’s derogatory towards people who have mental illness or insane or things like that. Say “gnarly” doesn’t have anything to do with anybody’s ability or um race or sexuality or anything like that. So uh it’s more of like a politically correct word.

Anne: That makes sense.  I know people with mental illnesses that really dislike the word insane or they really hate the word crazy. So I think it’s important to be aware of language and how powerful it could be and how it could be reinforcing certain stereotypes, for example, and like…

Helen: Systems, or structures of oppression.

Helen: Yeah. All the time.

Anne: Yeah.

Anne: So that’s really an interesting point that you make about gender inclusiveness. For example, do you say, “You guys?”

Helen: In California, is that commonly said in California?

Helen: I would say yes. But in the Bay Area, most people say “y’all” or “you all” or “folks,” you guys is kind of a no no. And if you say it, you can sometimes see people, like, flinch.  

Anne: People squint. You’d be like what… you just said, “You guys?”

Helen: You guys, because it’s um gendered. It’s referring to men.

Anne: Yeah.

Helen: And there are a lot of people in the world who are not men and so people want to be inclusive of all genders and yes, so a lot of people say, people say you “y’all.” Um what else? Folks? Um people sometimes spell “folks” with like “folx.”

Anne: Oh, interesting spelling of folks. Yeah.

Helen: I’m not 100% sure why, but I’m here for it.

Anne: But before you move to the Bay Area, you used to say, “you guys.” But then after you realized, oh, wow, I need to start changing my language and say, “y’all” or “folks.” It’s more appropriate. Right? Right. Yeah.

Helen: Because I thought it was just like a Southern thing, but um it’s also like a term that a lot of queer people use, uh like, people in the LGBTQ community. Um and yeah, it’s just more inclusive. And so now I pretty much exclusive. I say y’all all the time now.

Anne: Yeah. That’s wonderful because my grandmother from Mississippi always used “y’all” going to the store. It’s so common in my family. And however, I often say, guys, hey, guys. Hey. So you’re bringing up this point that I need to be more, much more conscious and much more aware of uh this. You guys think I obviously need to change. I want to change my language, obviously. Yeah.

Helen: I mean, it’s up to you.

Anne: It’s kind of awareness. Right. Once I become aware of it, you think, oh, I’ll start using a different phrase. Right. All right. Back to another slang word. So, I think the word amped is interesting. And what does “amped” mean?

Helen: “Amped” just means very excited. Um yeah. I am here in Spain with you, and I was amped to go on this trip, and I told everyone I was so amped to come to Spain.

Anne: Extremely excited to go take a trip or go to a concert or anything that you’re looking forward to doing. Right. I just want to say that amped could come from a speaker. Right. The amplifier on a speaker. Um yeah. It could be like amplifying noise, for example. So maybe that’s kind of the idea. Right. Turn up the speakers. We’re so excited. Turn up the volume. And um then also, I guess we were talking a little bit about 420 and what it means, especially in California, the 420 culture. I think the youth may be interested in this 420. What does it mean? Where does it come from?

Helen: So, 420 means marijuana, um and that actually originated in California, I guess um I was reading on History or something like that that there were four students in San Rafael, which is very close to where I live. It’s about 20-30 minute drive from where I live. And they heard that there was this farmer who had this marijuana crop that they had abandoned. And so they would meet every day after practice at 420 to go search for this treasure. And I think that it ended up being like someone from I want to say, the Grateful Dead. One of those bands ended up hearing it because they were friends or their brother was friends with the band or something. And then it was like on a flyer and then it just really spread. So now 420 means marijuana. It also, in California, April 20th, 4/20 is like an unofficial holiday. And I went to UC Berkeley, which um there’s a lot of weed smoked in the Bay Area. It’s like way more than cigarettes. You never smell someone smoking cigarettes. It’s just like on every street, you’re walking behind somebody who’s like smoking a blunt or something like that.

Anne: When I went to Berkeley for the first time, I couldn’t believe. I felt like every I was breathing air, but it was just marijuana. The smell of weed everywhere I went on every street, every street corner, every sidewalk I was walking down, it was like smoke from marijuana. So it was a little bit surprising, right? Yeah.

Helen: On April 20, on uh the UC Berkeley campus, no one goes to classes in the afternoon, especially. And this huge group of students, it looks like some sort of a festival meet up on this lawn and they all have their hammocks and whatever, and they’re just like huge billowing clouds of weed smoke.

Anne: And tell us about the time your professor something like that. Your professor…

Helen: I had a class on April 20, and it was in the afternoon because on 4:20pm on 420 when you really get high.

Anne: Right.

Helen: And my classes during that period. And so there were like three of us who showed up. She had invited the speaker to come and she’s so mad. They were just doing their thing.

Anne: The professor was slightly forgetful of the campus holiday.

Helen: She was British, and she was unaware of the California culture.

Anne: Right. So weed is probably more ubiquitous than alcohol, for example. Yeah.

Helen: I would say if um not more than at least like the same where I live. I don’t know if that’s true everywhere in California.

Anne: Okay.

Helen: But in the Bay Area, definitely, there is so much marijuana. There are just dispensaries, which is like a store where they sell it on every corner.

Anne: Yeah, you can legally smoke it in public. Yeah. You can legally smoke it. Yeah.

Helen: And there are places where you’re not supposed to smoke anything. Like, for example, on the Bart train. But I regularly get on Bart and I’m like, oh, someone just smoked an entire blunt in this car. Cool.

Anne: Yeah. So I was thinking to myself, wow, where else in the US would you find this kind of open mindedness? Right, right. Because I think marijuana isn’t legal in all states, for example. Right. Yeah.

Helen: There’s like uh varying levels of legality of marijuana. Like in some states, it’s like decriminalized, meaning the police aren’t going to come for you. But it’s still a federal crime. I mean, it’s still a federal crime everywhere, I’m pretty sure. But in California, it’s like legal and they’re able to have businesses. And that’s um also a huge industry in California.

Anne: Right. Definitely. I’ve heard about that. Okay, well, let’s go onto another expression, which is. Yeah. And I want to get the intonation of this? Yeah. No, I don’t know if it’s yeah, no or not. And what means yes. And which one of those means yes? Which one means no?

Helen: So the last word. Oh, no, but if you’re just like, no. Yeah, I’m interested in that.

Anne: Okay. So it’s a way of just agreeing to something or saying yeah.

Helen: And I have no idea why we do it but we do all the time. So can you say it one more time? So it’s like, yeah, no, your voice intonation goes down. Uh yeah. And it sounds pretty much like no, you don’t want to do that. No.

Helen: Yeah, it means no.

Anne: And then you’ll be like, no. Yeah. Okay. So it’s kind of a playful way of agreeing or just agreeing to something. Right. You’re down or you’re not. Okay, great. And what about I don’t know if there are any other words that you want to mention. We um had talked a little bit about rad. Some of your friends were saying it and some don’t.

Helen: Think that’s an example of, like, a slang word that was kind of obsolete, and then it’s kind of coming back a little bit. But “rad” or “radical” just means, like, really cool. And that um also comes from surfer culture, just like gnarly does. But yeah, maybe I just hang out with people who aren’t very cool, but I hear people say, oh, yeah, I.

Anne: Think it’s more common. I think it’s coming back, like, better. It’s just never been forgotten. Right.

Helen: And I think it’s another example of people trying to come up with creative language to be inclusive, for sure.

Anne: Yeah. Okay. Well, this has been a delightful conversation About California slang. I’ve enjoyed talking to you so much about this, And I hope other listeners have benefited from our conversation and have learned a few good slang words. Awesome. And maybe become more aware of gender inclusive language. Right. With “y’all” and “folks.” Right. And if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to email and we can get back to you. Yeah, no, I’m going to have to obviously practice that a little bit. Yeah.

Anne: Thank you for listening. I hope you enjoyed this episode. Helen really helps us think about the importance of becoming more aware and conscious of inclusive language that takes into account people of diverse genders, races, and ability levels Using the language that isn’t derogatory and that doesn’t reinforce structures of oppression. In this interview, we got insight into how powerful and creative language is and how it’s constantly transforming and changing based on the dynamic surroundings. Be sure to follow the podcast So you can get notifications when new episodes are published. We’ll be doing episodes on Miami slang, Midwest slang, internet slang, and slang from other regions in the Southern states as well. So stay tuned and thank you so much. See you next time.