Chrysti The Wordsmith: Ukulele

Sometimes word studies can lead us down unexpected pathways. Take, for example, the term ukulele. We associate ukuleles—small, four-stringed guitar-like instruments--with Hawaiian music. And the word itself comes, of course, from the Hawaiian language. So far so good. What’s odd in this equation, however, is that ukulele literally means “leaping flea.”

How so?

The instrument had a different name when it was first imported to Hawaii from Portugal. Portuguese sailors called it the machete when they brought it from their homeland to the South Pacific island in the 1880s.

Enter an Englishman named Edward Purvis, a British army officer living in Hawaii as a member of the royal Hawaiian court. Edward Purvis took a shine to this Portuguese stringed instrument and quickly mastered it.

The story has Purvis a man of small and nimble stature who played the machete with great showmanship and verve. The Hawaiians, amused by the animated, diminutive Edward Purvis, began calling him Ukulele, the Leaping Flea. The name was eventually transferred to the instrument itself. By the early years of the 20th century, when this little guitarlike apparatus made its debut on the American mainland, its new name, ukulele, was firmly established.