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Big kahuna

Big kahuna is an idiom that is derived from the native Hawaiian language. The word kahuna has gone through many variations in translation until it finally joined the English language in the middle of the twentieth century in the idiom the big kahuna, a term many Hawaiians find offensive.

The first known translation of the Hawaiian word kahuna appeared in an 1865 Hawaiian-English dictionary as a derivation of the word kahu, which means to cook in an earthen oven. At this time, kahuna was applied to anyone who practiced an art or profession with mastery, such as a kahuna lapa’au, or a doctor. When the word kahuna was used alone, it referred to a priest or shaman. During the mid-1800s to late 1800s, a kahuna was an expert in an art or profession. When tourists began to visit Hawaii, they were exposed to the word kahuna, especially the phrase kahuna nui he’e nalu, which means the master surfer. Eventually, the phrase was shortened and semi-Anglicized to the term big kahuna. In 1959 the term was popularized by the movie Gidget, which featured a character named The Big Kahuna, who was the ringleader of a group of surfers. Today big kahuna is a humorous term used to describe anyone who holds a position of power in an organization or is in some way important. The original meaning of kahuna encompassed a spiritual aspect, therefore, some Hawaiians are offended by the appropriation of the word. In 2004, many Hawaiians signed a petition asking Dodge not to produce a concept car aimed at surfers named the Kahuna. Though big kahuna appears in the Oxford English Dictionary, it may be best not to use this pidgin term.


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Examples

Festival founder Matt Beeler, who created Big Kahuna Wing Seasonings, said more than 100,000 chicken wings were consumed Saturday at Knoxville’s only celebration of wings. (The Knoxville News Sentinel)

DoubleClick was “the big Kahuna” of internet businesses, Chahal says in his memoir, but he knew he could build a different business that tracked the number of clicks on an ad. (The Business Insider)

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