May 23, 1999 - Pacific Island Words

INTRO: Our Wordmasters Rosanne Skirble and Avi Arditti take us back to the islands of the Pacific this week for a lesson in language.

Music -- "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini"/Brian Hyland

RS: I can remember singing about that "itsy bitsy teenie weenie yellow polkadot bikini" as a kid in summer camp, back in 1960 when that song was a hit. Little did we realize what a fashion statement we were making!

AA: Back then it was a shock to see women on the beach wearing itsy bitsy bikinis -- small two-piece bathing suits. Today the bikini is a part of American popular culture. But what most Americans probably don't know is where the word itself comes from.

RS: It comes all the way from the Marshall Islands. That's what University of Hawaii linguistics Professor Byron Bender told us.


BENDER: "In the Marshalls it is the word 'pikinni,' the name of the island where early atomic testing took place. The name literally means 'surface of coconuts.'"

RS: "How did the name of an island get attached to a two-piece bathing suit."

Byron Bender: "I gather the bathing suit for its time was rather explosive or atomic let's say. That was the image."

AA: Now here's another image, one that strikes fear in the hearts of schoolchildren -- to be accused of having "cooties," real or imaginary.

RS: "Cooties" is another favorite on Byron Bender's list of "loan words" from the pacific islands. It means lice.


"This is a word that has come into English from the Malay language where the word is 'kutu,' k-u-t-u, and I assume that British (colonial) soldiers out in the Malays one way or another encountered these little creatures, and they dubbed them cootie. Now, the -ie ending gives them a kind of diminutive, but of course, 'kutu' are quite small."

RS: But the story doesn't end there. Byron Bender told us that "kutu" or cootie also surfaced in Hawaii as the name of a popular musical instrument resembling the guitar.


"I'm sure that most Americans know what a ukulele is. Here in Hawaii we call it the ukulele without the /yuh/ on the front end of the word. Ukulele literally is dancing flea, or dancing louse. So that /kutu/ has become in hawaiian /uku/. And, I suppose it has to do with the fingers dancing on the strings of the ukulele."

AA: Byron Bender says Malay is also credited with the word "compound" meaning a settlement or a village. The Malay language has also given us the name for a primate that looks a lot like a human. "Orangutan" means "person of the forest.

RS: turning from the islands of Malaysia, Byron Bender says English also derives a number of words from the Asian subcontinent.


"Again the British (colonial) experience has brought back into the English language words like 'veranda' and 'pajamas. ' Another word that many people aren't aware of comes ultimately from the Indian subcontinent is the word pal, p-a-l for buddy, and actually that comes not from Hindi, but from a sister language of Hindi, a language called Romani which is the language of the gypsies. That's especially interesting because it shows us where the gypsies originated from, from the subcontinent of Indian. But the word 'pal' comes from the word for brother in Romani."

AA: Byron Bender from the University of Hawaii says words come to the United States with successive waves of immigrants, and when people travel or work abroad and bring the words home.

RS: Words like bikini, cootie, veranda, compound, orangutan, pajamas and pal.

AA: Be a pal and write to us. Our postal address is VOA Wordmaster, Washington DC 20547 USA. Or you can reach us electronically -- our e-mail address is

RS: With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.

Music -- "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini"