What Does “Wiki” Mean, and What Language Is It From?

WikiLeaks has been in the news lately because it released a document that encompasses over 91,000 reports covering the war in Afghanistan. Wikileaks is a site that obtains and publishes sensitive material and is designed to protect whistle-blowers, journalists and activists. Wikipedia is another wiki word that has become ubiquitous. But where does the wiki in WikiLeaks and Wikipedia come from?

Wiki was introduced into the lexicon by a computer programmer named Ward Cunningham in 1995 when he created collaborative software that he called WikiWikiWeb. Wiki is Hawaiian for “fast; quick.”

As a noun, wiki means “a website that allows anyone to add, delete or revise content by using a web browser.” The term wiki is also used as a verb; if you wiki, you are either researching a topic on a wiki or contributing to one. As reflected in the terms WikiLeaks and Wikipedia, wiki is sometimes used in creating blended words or portmanteaus: a wikiholic devotes a vast amount of time to wiki-based projects. Similarly, a Wikipedian is a person who enthusiastically contributes to Wikipedia.

The word has been translated into a number of languages. In Estonian it is viki; in Welsh it is wici.

A word from one language that enters another is called a loanword. Wiki is not the only word on loan from Hawaiian. Aloha, which means “hello,” “love” and “good-bye,” is used frequently by English speakers. Mahalo, luau, hula and kahuna are other notable examples.

There are some Hawaiian words that for one reason or another will probably never be adopted by the English language. An example would be humuhumunukunukuapuaa. Tell us what you think the word means, or what it sounds like it should mean, and we will add the most creative offering to the blog post later (as well as the actual definition.)

**Thank you for all the creative definitions of humuhumunukunukuapuaa, which is of course “either of two triggerfishes of Indo-Pacific coral reefs.”  Our pick for the most creative comes from Mark: “A small, carniverous marsupial that lurks in trees and drops down onto prey. The straight Translation means ‘Furred Domination in the skies.'” Lucky for us, the actual creature is far more benign.**

Incidentally, avocado is a loanword too, and the Aztecs called it the “fertility fruit.” Here’s why.