The last time Jim Manheimer saw his Berkeley High School yearbook, President Jimmy Carter held office and the McDonald’s Happy Meal had just been invented. But with the help of a linguistics expert, a Facebook group, and Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf’s use of the word ‘hella,’ Manheimer was reunited last Friday with the yearbook he’d lost on the day he graduated in 1979.
Let’s back up a few steps. The reunion started after Ben Zimmer, a linguistics expert and language columnist for the Wall Street Journal, heard Schaaf say she’s “hella proud, and hella relieved” that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won the 2020 election, Zimmer told Berkeleyside. Harris also used the word in one of her post-election speeches, he said.
“‘Hella’ has been an interest of mine for quite a while now,” Zimmer said. “This is the type of mystery that I enjoy trying to solve.”
With ‘hella’ in the national spotlight, he and other slang enthusiasts dug into the word’s history, searching for the earliest evidence of its existence. Writing an article about the origins of the word for a November article in the Wall Street Journal led Zimmer to a collection of digitized BHS yearbooks on the Internet Archive. In one, a student wrote to their friend Jim in 1979, “Too bad you didn’t go to Santa Cruz cause it was hell of live” — years before other evidence of “hella” or its variants.
“When you write in someone’s yearbook, there’s very formulaic things about ‘have a great summer’ and lots of in-jokes and things that nobody would get except for the people involved,” Zimmer said. “I see that this belonged to someone, kids signing it, and I wonder, ‘What’s the story with this? How did it end up in some library collection?’”
Manheimer had the answer to that. He had finished classes at BHS a semester early in 1979 but returned to graduate at the Greek Theater with his classmates and get his crisp new yearbook signed by his friends. But in the hubbub of matriculation, he passed off the yearbook to his mother, and it was lost or stolen that very same day.
When Zimmer shared his article on the history of ‘hella’ on Facebook, it quickly made the rounds of East Bay linguistic enthusiasts and BHS alumni. The article made its way to a Facebook group for Berkeley High’s class of 1979, and as luck would have it, Manheimer — now 60 and living in Oakland — stumbled upon the photos of the yearbook. The link to the digitized yearbook images indicated they came from the Berkeley Public Library.
“It was sort of a bolt of lightning,” he recalled. “I’ve never really read these autographs because I graduated a half year early,” but he quickly recognized well-wishes dedicated to “Jimmy” and his old high school inside jokes.
“This is unique in my experience,” Zimmer said about Manheimer rediscovering his yearbook. “That was just amazing — such a small world, that we were able to make that connection.”
Manheimer’s yearbook had actually resided for 40 years at the Berkeley Public Library. He called the Central Branch to say “‘Hey, I think that you have my yearbook,’” said Aimee Reeder, a library communications analyst, who said it was a one-in-a-million connection. “He described it to a T.”
It takes a lot to remove something from the library’s collections because they are public resources, according to Reeder. In her two-year tenure at the library, this is the first time a request like this has been made or granted.
“It has to be approved at the highest level – for something like this, it had to be the director,” she said.
Still, the story proved irresistible, and on Jan. 15, Manheimer met Reeder and librarian Jef Findley outside the Central Branch on Kittredge Street, with Berkeley High School visible just a half-block away. The trio did a socially distanced handoff of the book, and Manheimer took it home to read the autographs for the very first time.
“As I was driving home, I thought how happy it would make my mother to have this come to such a great conclusion,” Manheimer wrote in an email to Berkeleyside. “I’m sure she wasn’t easy on herself for losing my yearbook. Getting it back 40 years later is probably better than having not lost it at all. So it all turned out just fine!”
As for the word that started it all, Manheimer is proud and bemused that his yearbook holds a place in linguistic history for the word “hella.”
“It didn’t seem noteworthy to us. We were saying it all the time,” Manheimer reflected. “It does feel good that my particular yearbook is academically and historically relevant.”