The ukulele, contrary to popular belief, doesn't even come from Hawaii. It was brought there in the nineteenth century by Portuguese sailors from Madeira and the Azores (North Atlantic Portuguese possessions), and it was originally called a machete. However, as its popularity in Hawaii increased, natives created their own name for it- ukulele, a word meaning "jumping flea" and a portmanteau of uku and lele, which meant "jump" and "flea" respectively. This definition was applied reportedly because of the way a ukulele player's hands would deftly move along the strings; almost like a flea jumping. There are some other theories, such as the possibility that it was named after a man so skilled that he was called the ukulele, but it's unconfirmed and all leads back to the same place anyway. Uku jumped around the Pacific language families a lot, with connections in Proto-Polynesian kutu, Proto-Oceanic kutu, Proto-Malayo-Polynesian kutu, and Proto-Austronesian kucu (it likely came from kucu, through any of the former). Meanwhile, lele has the simple etymology of being from Porto-Malayo-Polynesian lalej, with the same meaning.
Adam Aleksic is a 220-month-old, 2800-ounce high school senior with disturbing interests in etymology, vexillology, geography, board games, limericks, and law. Adam will be studying linguistics at Harvard University in the fall.
The Etymology Nerd