Dear Word Detective: The other morning I was listening to Public Radio with my coffee and email, as is my wont most mornings, when in an interview that I otherwise hadn’t been paying much attention to, the PR interviewer said something like “It’s like a wiki, then” and she and the interviewee continued as if “wiki” meant some sort of communal activity. I suppose, with the popularity of Wikipedia, that “wiki,” which I heard often during my Navy stint in Hawaii, will change from meaning “quickly” or “hurry” to “communal.” Any comments on the transformation of “wiki,” or would you like to open source your column so we can all write paragraphs and change the name of the column to WikiWord? — Barney Johnson.
Now there’s a good idea. I wish you had suggested it sooner. Unfortunately, now that I’m getting that big bailout from the US Treasury, I’ll no longer be able to afford to be poor. On the bright side, with all that moolah I’ll be outsourcing the actual writing to Sri Lanka, so we’ll have a whole new range of wildlife appearing in this column. Cobras are way more exciting than boring old cats and dogs, doncha think? And they have something over there called a “sloth bear” that looks like pure comedy gold.
Onward. “Wiki” is indeed a word in Hawaiian meaning “fast” or “quick.” For most of us, our first exposure to the word “wiki” was in the name of Wikipedia, the collaborative free internet encyclopedia that anyone can edit. Wikipedia operates on the theory that if a contributor writes something that is factually wrong or deliberately distorted, other contributors can quickly step in and correct the entry. In practice, however, it’s impossible to know whether the entry you’re reading has been most recently edited by a true expert in the field or by Bozo the Vengeful Clown.
Wikipedia, however, was not the first “wiki” online. A site called WikiWikiWeb was developed in 1994 by a programmer named Ward Cunningham to facilitate the exchange of ideas among software developers, with an emphasis on making contributions from users quick and easy. He chose the word “wiki” after riding a shuttle bus called “the Wiki Wiki Shuttle” at the Honolulu airport (“wiki wiki” being a “reduplication” of “wiki” meaning “very quick”).
Many kinds of “wiki” software have since been developed, but all share the basic goal of making contributions by users to a collaborative website (or part of a website) easy. Many hobby websites, for instance, now include a “wiki” section where visitors can contribute information on the minutiae of basket collecting, model railroading, etc. to a centralized repository. This sort of site is now what the vast majority of English speakers mean when they use the word “wiki.”
It’s hard to say that the meaning of “wiki” in English has changed, because “wiki” in the Hawaiian sense of “quick” never had much currency in English to begin with. What we have done is adopt a Hawaiian word and give it a completely new meaning in English. And there is, of course, no guarantee that we’re done yet. It’s entirely possible that “wiki” will eventually be used to mean any sort of collaborative activity that relies on the contributions of individuals, from potluck dinners to social movements.