As I always like to say, the name of the Hawaiian monk seal “ ʻīlio-holo-i-ka-uaua” literally means ‘dog swimming in a wetsuit’. This is different from the meaning given in the modern standard Hawaiian-English Pūkuʻi and Elbert dictionary which says it means “quadruped running in the rough [seas]”.
The monk seal has a canine-like appearance; thus “dog” is certainly appropriate.
The skin is very rubbery of course, and a word for this type of material traditionally is “uaua” (pronounced /u-áua/, NOT /úa-úa/ interestingly).
Monk Seal Pup on French Frigate Shoals in 2014 by MarkSullivan CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
It was common to write the word “uaua” as “uwauwa” before Hawaiian spelling was fixed in the late 1970s to remove the letter “w” from words in which it cannot be pronounced as either /w/ or /v/. Thus I use the modern spelling “uaua” exclusively — the word cannot be pronouced /uvau-va/.
“Uaua” is an ʻaʻano, or adjective-like word. Even Pūkuʻi-Elbert say of their interpretation of “uaua” as a noun in the name for the Monk Seal that, “For a rare use of uaua as a noun, see ʻīlioholoikauaua.” I believe their use of “uaua” to mean rough seas is probably incorrect.
The Andrews Hawaiian language dictionary of 1865 gives the following definition for the word “U-WAU-WA”: “To be tight; fast; hard; e linalina, e moku ole, e paa” with the Hawaiian meaning “being soft and yielding to the touch, or tightly drawn, as a rope; unbreakable; tight, fast, secured, resistant, impenetrable”.
I first started using the term “dog in a wetsuit” as a fun and memorable way to describe the meaning of “ʻīlioholoikauaua” with my students back in the early 2000s, and was more than pleased when in 2022 I found a related use of the word “uaua” in a newspaper from 1866.
The Hawaiian newspaper “Ke Alaula” in an article from 1866 said of walrus skin: “O ka ili he uwauwa loa, a ua hoolilo ia i mea ili kauo no na lio kauo kaa ma Amerika” (He uaua loa ka ʻili, a ua hoʻolilo ʻia i mea ʻili kauō no nā lio kauō kaʻa ma ʻAmelika) meaning “The skin is a very tough and rubbery thing, and it has been used as a tow strap for horses drawing carts/carriages in America”.
There is always more one can do in looking for the meaning of words through time and how they are applied to various things like the monk meal, ʻīlioholoikauaua. For now, I will leave the topic and return to it when I learn more. If you have any thoughts or comments, feel free to let me know using the comments box below.