Big Kahuna – Idiom, Origin & Meaning

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Candace Osmond

Candace Osmond studied Advanced Writing & Editing Essentials at MHC. She’s been an International and USA TODAY Bestselling Author for over a decade. And she’s worked as an Editor for several mid-sized publications. Candace has a keen eye for content editing and a high degree of expertise in Fiction.

Aloha! Ever come across the term Big Kahuna and wondered what it really means? Is it Hawaiian? Could it be offensive? Today, we’re diving deep into the tropical waters of this term to reveal its secrets. By the end of this quick guide, you’ll know what it means and how you can slip it into everyday conversations.

Is Big Kahuna Hawaiian?

What a coincidence I’d know the answer to this without popping over to Google! During a Hawaiian vacation with my mother, we took several tours of the islands, and I remember a guide explaining this exact term to us. 

Despite the Hawaiian vibes, Big Kahuna isn’t a traditional Hawaiian term. Kahuna is, but not “big kahuna.” It became popular in mainland America post-WWII, taking on a surf culture connotation representing the boss or the best. So, no, you won’t find Big Kahuna in any ancient Hawaiian texts.

Big Kahuna Meaning Explained

Big Kahuna Idiom Origin Meaning

In contemporary English, Big Kahuna is a metaphorical term often used to describe a person in charge, the head honcho, or the top dog. In surfing culture, it’s used to acknowledge someone as the most skilled or dominant in the group.

Is Big Kahuna Offensive?

The term isn’t considered offensive per se, but its usage can be culturally insensitive. While it’s widely used in American English, remember that it technically appropriates Hawaiian culture and might not sit well with everyone.

Origin and Etymology of Big Kahuna

Big Kahuna Ngram
Big kahuna usage trend.

The word Kahuna is genuinely Hawaiian and refers to a priest, sorcerer, magician or professional expert. However, when Big was prefixed, making it Big Kahuna, it morphed into a whole new entity and adopted the aforementioned meanings.

Big Kahuna Synonyms

If you’re unsure about using a term tied up with a culture, or Big Kahuna simply doesn’t fit the vibe of your writing, try any of these words in place of it. 

  • Head Honcho
  • Top Dog
  • Chief
  • Boss
  • Leader
  • Master
  • Principal

Big Kahuna Examples in a Sentence

Big Kahuna Idiom Origin Meaning 1
  • With his unmatched skill and knowledge, Bob quickly became the Big Kahuna of our chess club.
  • She’s not just a member of the council; she’s the Big Kahuna.
  • As the Big Kahuna of the design team, his approval is essential.
  • When it comes to cooking, Grandma is the Big Kahuna in our family.
  • In our rapidly growing world of tech startups, Elon Musk is considered a Big Kahuna.
  • Becoming the Big Kahuna of the sales department was a major achievement for her.
  • He’s the Big Kahuna of local real estate, controlling most of the city’s premium properties.

Are You a Big Kahuna?

That’s the inside scoop on Big Kahuna. It might be authentically Hawaiian, but it derives from it and has certainly made waves in American English. But it’s always a good idea to consider cultural sensitivity when using terms like this.

I’ve got plenty of other helpful guides on our site, so be sure to have a look and see what other tidbits of knowledge you can pick up! Until next time, mahalo and aloha!