Big Kahuna

By Philologos

Published August 24, 2006, issue of August 25, 2006.
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Lisa Sopher of New York City writes:

“Someone recently mentioned to me that the term ‘big Kahuna’ comes from Hawaii, where it means ‘high priest,’ and I was wondering if there was any connection between this term and the kohen gadol [high priest] of the Hebrew Bible.”

No, Ms. Sopher, there is no connection, apart from the kind of odd coincidences that sometimes can occur between two totally unrelated languages — and Hawaiian and Hebrew, it hardly needs to be pointed out, are about as unrelated as any two languages can be.

The expression “big Kahuna” comes from the Hawaiian kahuna nui. Nuimeans “big” or “great,” and kahuna can be translated roughly as “priest” or “master,” although there seems to be some disagreement over whether the root of the word is kahu, meaning a custodian or caretaker (of ancient lore or knowledge), with the nominalizing suffix –na, or whether it is huna something hidden or kept secret, with the agentive prefix ka-. Perhaps this uncertainty has to do with the fact that Hawaiian, a language that was on the verge of extinction a few decades ago until it began to be taught widely in Hawaii’s schools, has almost no native speakers left to adjudicate such matters.

But there is no disagreement about what a kahuna was. As described by Hawaiian cultural historian Herb Kawainui Kane:

“Kahuna were cultural counterparts of the guild masters and priests of medieval Europe. Beyond serving as the leading practitioner of his craft or profession, each acted as an interface between his guild and its patron spirits…. The kahuna nui advised his king on spiritual matters and conducted rituals to invoke spiritual help…. Kahuna kilo hoku were experts in weather, seasonal changes, astronomy and navigation. Kahuna ho’oulu ’ai were agricultural experts. Kahuna kalai were carving experts. Kahuna kalai wa’a were the master canoe builders. The kahuna la’au lapa’au was a medical practitioner. There were also such specialists as kahuna hui, who performed mortuary ceremonies for the deification of a king; kahuna kilokilo, who observed the skies for omens, and kahuna kaula, regarded as prophets.”

The kahuna system was swept away by Christianization in the early 19th century, and none of its traditional masters survived into the 20th. Yet the word itself persisted among Hawaiians as a term for an expert or adept, and “big kahuna” was eventually picked up by Hawaiian surfing slang, where it came to mean the best surfer on the beach and was popularized by such surfer movies as “Gidget” (1959) and “Back To The Beach” (1987). From the surfing world it has, as of late, entered more general usage. Once again a film promotes it: John Swanbeck’s 1999 “The Big Kahuna,” a story about three salesmen. Today, one can be “the big kahuna” of just about anything, even a field of Jewish scholarship — as when the Jewish News Weekly of Northern California referred not too long ago to former Berkeley professor Daniel Matt as “Kabbalah’s big kahuna.”

Which brings us to our own Jewish high priest, whose title of kohen gadol means, literally in Hebrew — like kahuna nui in Hawaiian — “big priest” or “great priest.” We owe the rendition “high priest” to 16th-century English Bible translator William Tyndale. He preceded the King James Version and in turn borrowed “high” in place of “great” from Martin Luther. whose German Bible rendered the Latin Vulgate’s more literal sacerdos magnu —“great priest” — as Hohepriester. What makes the coincidence of having a “great kohen” in Hebrew and a “great kahuna” in Hawaiian seem even greater is that Hebrew has a second word, kehuna, which means “priesthood,” and which yields the medieval rabbinic expression kehuna gedola, “great kehuna,” referring to the office of the high priest. And as if that were not enough, we go from the coincidental to the downright comical when we get to the Hebrew expression bigdei kehuna, “priestly garments,” which turns up in Wikipedia (the Internet’s “free encyclopedia” that is not known for its accuracy) with the comment:

“The ‘Big-deh Kahuna’ was the High Priest [sic!] who was the ultimate authority at the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem…. One wonders if the writers, directors, or movie moguls (Goldwyn, Mayer, etc.) of the old movies in the thirties and forties, many of whom were familiar with Jewish language, history and religious practice, may have used the term in the making of a movie about a High Priest of Hawaii or some other exotic locale.”

All that’s missing is to spell it “The Big Day Kahuna”! Such a statement shows itself as ignorant of California’s Hollywood as it is of Judaism, since “Gidget,” the first Hollywood movie to employ the term “big kahuna,” was made, as we have said, in 1957, by which year Louis B. Mayer was dying and Sam Goldwyn was about to make his final movie. But in such a manner are urban legends born. This one deserves to be buried quickly.

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