What does ʻukulele mean?

What does ʻukulele mean?

I get this all the time.  While it's easy to do a Google search, not all sources are trustworthy nor complete.  Hopefully this article helps!

Literal Meaning of ʻUkulele

First, the literal translation: "ʻuku" in ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi (the Hawaiian language) means "flea/lice," and "lele" means "to jump/fly."  You can verify these literal translations (and look up others) at wehewehe.org.  The literal translation of "ʻukulele," therefore, is "jumping flea."

Historical Context

The story goes that this came from Hawaiians describing the quick fingers of an ʻukulele player's fretting hand.  This makes sense when you realize that the ʻukulele is a mixed between the classical/Spanish guitar (brought by Mexican cowboys from California) and three Portuguese instruments (braguinha, machete do Braga, and rajão brought by immigrants from Madeira, Azores, and Capo Verde).  If you listen to Spanish, Portuguese, Latin American, and Caribbean music, you'll often hear the smaller instruments playing the faster riffs.  When the ʻukulele was invented, they did the same thing!

Kaona - Poetic/Hidden Meaning

Now, if you know anything about the history of the ʻukulele and about ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi, you know that there's more to the story.  In Hawaiian, every word has a literal translation and often at least one kaona, or poetic/hidden meaning.  These kaona can be known by all native speakers or the culture as a whole, or be almost like an inside joke exclusively between two people.

Alternate Translation/Kaona for Ukulele

The most famous kaona for ʻukulele is from our last monarch, Queen Liliʻuokalani.  Her translation for ʻukulele was much more palatable for most people and was a small example of her skill with language.  Her majesty gave us "uku" as a way to say "gift," and "lele" as a way to say "to come/came."  "Gift to come/Gift that came" was in reference to the Portuguese immigrants who brought their stringed instruments, who then worked with Hawaiians to hybridize them with each other and/or the guitar to invent the ʻukulele.


Hawaiian words have a literal and usually a poetic/hidden meaning

-ʻUkulele literally means "jumping flea" but ukulele (according to Queen Liliʻuokalani) means "the gift that came (from Portugal)."*

*Note that ʻukulele and ukulele are used here, one with the "ʻ" in the beginning and one without.  This does make a difference in translation, but you will not find it until it was introduced in the written language much later than Queen Liliʻuokalani's passing.

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