That would be hella big.

Hellawatts? Hellagrams? Hellameters?

I missed this one when it first cropped up and then, when I saw it, it was the time of year that I thought it might be an April Fool’s joke. But it wasn’t.

In SI units, the System International, what we colloquially call the metric system in the US, a small bestiary of prefixes is used to show powers of ten, moving from the very, very small to the very, very large. There are terms in there that most of us know: centi, milli, micro, for example, for 10^-2, 10^-3, and 10^-6, respectively; and on the other side of the scale mega, giga, and tera, for 10^6, 10^9, and 10^12. Closer to the midpoint, these prefixes increase or decrease by one factor of ten at a time, but after the third power, they move by factors of three. At the very bottom end of the officially sanctioned list is yocto, 10^-24. At the top end is yotta, 10^24.

(I did a post not too long ago about the picogram, 10^-12 grams, if you’re interested in an attempt to visualize one of these tiny quantities.)

There’s been a move afoot since 2010 to have a new SI prefix adopted. If it goes through, the prefix for 10^27 would be “hella.”

In some parts of the US, hella is a slang term for “very;” many claim this as a northern California thing (somewhat in dispute, particularly since the earliest text citation in the OED – 1987 – is from Toronto; AHD also includes it, but not Merriam-Webster). Perhaps it was once a clear regionalism, before being popularized by the character Cartman on South Park (that’s from late 1998, by the way).

So this new hella SI prefix idea, only half serious by most accounts, is an effort to codify a slang term into international scientific terminology.

Purely a joke? Maybe. But it’s gotten some traction. In May, 2010, Google incorporated hella into the Google calculator. (Didn’t know that Google included a calculator? There are a number of interesting features hiding in plain sight in the Google interface. For instance, you can get the time anywhere, up-to-the-minute currency conversions, and even track UPS packages.)

Type something like this into the Google search field and take a look at the results: “1234567890123456789012345 kilograms to hellagrams.” Indulge your inner geek.

About a year later, WolframAlpha followed suit. (WolframAlpha: a “computational knowledge engine.” Out of my league, I’m afraid.)

That’s all well and good for some web programmers to start using hella, but SI prefixes aren’t subject to popular fancy. The CPGM, the international body that manages the SI, has so far declined to adopt hella. Possibly because there’s at least one competing alternative (xenna), or possibly because no one really has a need for hella. After all, by the time you start dealing in yotta quantities, you’re already far off most charts.

I didn’t exactly find this information hella interesting – but it was at least worth these few minutes’ discussion. I hope you agree.

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About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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One Response to That would be hella big.

  1. Pingback: Your editor and your anachronisms | thebettereditor

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