Wiki: The unsuspecting Hawai’ian word

The modernisation of Hawai‘ian

Mitiana Arbon

Society and culture | Pacific

23 May 2016

Mitiana Arbon reflects on the origin and adoption of the Hawai’ian word wiki into the English language.

These days it is impossible not to encounter the word wiki in one form or another online. From reading diplomatic cables on WikiLeaks to researching the average life span of Scottish deerhounds on Wikipedia, wiki has unassumingly crept into the global vernacular.

But how did this word come about? The first use of wiki in an online sense was from Howard Cunningham a software developer. Cunningham learned the word during a trip to Hawai‘i, after being informed at the airport counter at Honolulu to catch the Wiki Wiki Shuttle Bus. Confused as to its meaning he inquired further and was told that wiki meant ‘quick’ or ‘fast’ in Hawai‘ian. The word wiki repeated, adds additional emphasis meaning ‘very quick’. In 1995 back in mainland US, Cunningham designed his first wiki software that he called WikiWikiWeb, later shortening it to Wiki. The idea being, like the word in Hawai‘ian, wiki software is a quick efficient way to do things online.

wiki wiki bus.jpg

Today wikis allow for collaborative modifications of a site online, amongst a community of users powered by Cunningham’s wiki software. Open sourced wikis have transformed the way that the Internet is used today, with Wikipedia now the world’s largest referencing site with over 38 million articles in over 250 different languages.

In 2007, wiki was even added to the Oxford English Dictionary following a long trend of adopting Hawai‘ian loanwords into the English language such as aloha, hula, kahuna, lei, luau, mahi-mahi and ukulele. The word wiki is often used beyond its intended definition, as a verb and often as a portmanteau such as wikiholic, wikipedian, or wikileaks.

However what most people do not realise is that, we are actually pronouncing wiki wrong. While the majority of readers would pronounce it as wick-ey (rhyming with sticky), Cunningham had intended for the proper Hawai‘ian pronunciation of wee-kee (rhyming with leaky) to be the proper pronunciation. Although he later admitted that wick-ey could be an acceptable alternative.


(Photo source: Walt Handelsman/Newsday)

For Cunningham the Hawai‘ian word represented all he aspired to within his program, an unusual word for an unusual technology. Rather then duplicating an idea from English such as mail into electronic mail, Cunningham wanted his site to be unattached to an existing established idea arguing, “The community that formed around my site were willing to explore its capabilities without preconceived notions of how it should work… Wikipedia would not be as successful as it is now had I named WikiWikiWeb ‘electronic-encyclopedia’. Its unique social conventions and properties would not have evolved.”

Despite the ubiquitousness of this one Hawai’in word online, the language as a whole does not enjoy the same vibrancy, and is slowly rebuilding native speakers. As Cunningham’s wiki has transformed the way that the Internet is used today, I encourage you to take the time to go on Wikipedia and learn a few more words in Hawai‘ian.

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  1. Richard Arbon says:

    Very interesting, I didn’t know any of that, just used the site.

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