WikiWhat? The story behind those four little letters.

Posted on 14 February 2011

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WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange isn't going anywhere fast.

It’s a pretty safe bet that somewhere in your personal top ten most visited websites is the delightful Wikipedia. The first-port-of-call encyclopedia is probably not the only website you use that’s wiki-prefixed. But have you ever wondered where the “wiki” bit comes from?

The news has been riddled recently with stories about whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks. That handsome rascal Julian Assange has singlehandedly brought the wiki prefix into our living rooms and favourite news sites over the past six months.

You might well be partial to the free-to-edit word tool that is Wiktionary. Yes, you have to squint a bit at the prefix.

Or maybe you’re a regular visitor of Wikinews, Wikiquotes, WikiHow or Wikiversity.

Wikis are, quite simply…

websites with pages that can be edited via the browser, with a version history for each page.

Yes, I quoted Wikipedia. Apt, no? And if you really want, you can start your own wiki. Don’t ask me how, though.

Ok, so where does the “wiki” bit come from. This one didn’t need much research but it’s a cute one.

The Wiki-Wiki bus is apparently blissfully unaware of its inspiration

The first Wiki was WikiWikiWeb, created by American computer programmer Ward Cunningham. He wanted to create a fast way of editing webpages through a browser interface.

That was back in 1995, and then usage of the word “wiki” was picked up by lexicographers in 2003, and Cunningham was congratulated as the rare creator of a globally-reaching, if slightly technical, neologism.

When asked where the word came from, he had a very neat – and probably unbelievably simple (for the lexicographer) – explanation:

“Wiki wiki is the first Hawaiʻian term I learned on my first visit to the islands. The airport counter agent directed me to take the wiki wiki bus between terminals. I said what? He explained that wiki wiki meant quick. I was to find the quick bus. I did pick up a book about the language before my return home. I learned many things from this but wiki wiki is the word that sticks the most.”

So “wiki” is a Hawaiʻian word for “fast”.

It’s meant to be pronounced [ˈwiti] or [ˈviti], but we’ll let you (well, everyone) off… this time.

So next time you venture on to a wiki-prefixed site, spare a thought for that little bus to-ing and fro-ing around Honolulu airport. It’s probably unaware of its inspiration.

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Posted in: Did you know?