The Wiki: Origin, History, and Etymology

Maybe it’s because of all the recent news about WikiLeaks and Julian Assange. Maybe it’s because I’ve found myself using Wikipedia a little more often to look up pertinent tidbits of information. Whatever the case, curiosity got the best of me and I had to determine the origin of the term “wiki” when it came to the context of the Internet.

So, what does “wiki” mean and how did it come to be?

Based on some quite research, I found that Ward Cunningham, an American computer programmer, was the first to coin the term when he developed the initial technology for that kind of website. He originally developed the programming software for what he came to call WikiWikiWeb (WWW, get it?) in 1994, installing it on the website of his software consulting firm, Cunningham & Cunningham.

Shorthand for WikiWikiWeb, the “wiki” was first conceived as the “the simplest online database that could possibly work.” But why would Cunningham use “wiki” in the first place?

Well, it came from a trip he made to Hawaii:

“Wiki wiki is the first Hawai’ian 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.”

It’s always interesting when you look at the origins of words, because the current usage can be quite far removed from how the word first came to be. Think about the modern usages for words like horsepower. Even “tabloid” carries different connotations these days.

“Wiki” might translate as “quick,” but why would Cunningham then conceive of WikiWikiWeb?

“I chose the word wiki knowing that it meant quick. I also knew that in Hawaiian words were doubled for emphasis. That is, I knew that wiki wiki meant very quick. I thought this doubling was appropriate for my technology’s name because I used unusual doublings in my application as formatting clues: double carriage-return = new paragraph; double single-quote = italic; double capitalized-word = hyperlink. My program was also very quick.”

If you’ve ever edited an article in Wikipedia, or any other wiki-based site, then you’ll know that the doubling of symbols is how the formatting of the site works. You use two single-quote marks for italics (e.g., ”slanty words”), two pairs of square brackets (e.g., [[Another Article Title]]) for internal links to other articles, and so forth. This “simplified markup language” goes hand in hand with the “quick” nature that Cunningham conceived for the technology.

Interestingly enough, the proper Hawaiian pronunciation of wiki is wee-kee (rhyming with sneaky). These days, though, I think that most people would pronounce wiki as wick-ee (rhyming with tricky). Cunningham has said that he prefers the former, but he’s willing to accept the latter.

Fun with words!