13 March 2010

Wordcatcher Tales: Catenary, Ka‘auila, HEA

Catenary – In a coffee-table book I purchased recently at a collector's fair, I discovered a new term for what I've always just called the overhead wires that power streetcars or trolley buses. The book, Streetcar Days in Honolulu, instead employs the technical term catenary, no doubt following prevailing usage in the records of the Honolulu Rapid Transit & Land Company. It's a fascinating book for anyone who has spent as much time riding Honolulu's TheBus system and researching local history as I have.

Ka‘auila – In the same book, I also discovered the Hawaiian word for ‘streetcar’, ka‘auila, which turned up in the name of the company newsletter, Ohua Ka‘auila. ‘Ōhua means ‘retainers, dependents, servants, inmates, members (of a family), visitors or sojourners in a household; passengers, as on a ship’ and the neologism ka‘auila bears only a coincidental resemblance to what one might imagine car and wheel to look like when borrowed into Hawaiian.

The noun ka‘a ‘wheeled vehicle (carriage, wagon, automobile, car, cart, coach, buggy)’ derives instead from the ka‘a that means ‘to roll, turn, twist, wallow, wind, braid, revolve’ or ‘rolling, twisting, turning, sloping’ (< Proto-Polynesian *taka). I first encountered this word in the Hawaiian placename Pu‘u ‘Ualaka‘a (‘hill + sweet potato + rolling’, with Hawaiian ‘uala ~ Māori kūmara) for the hillside nowadays more commonly called Round Top.

The earlier meaning of uila was ‘lightning’ (< PPN *‘uhila, with PPN *‘ and *h both lost in Hawaiian), which was later extended to mean ‘electricity; electric’. So ka‘auila is literally ‘vehicle-electric’.

TheBus HEA markerHEAHonolulu Estimated Arrival is a new service of TheBus that allows passengers to track bus arrivals at any particular stop electronically via Google Maps. The acronym (or initialism) was crafted to match the Hawaiian question word hea (< PPN *fea), which translates as ‘which’ when it follows a noun, or ‘where’ when it follows a locative preposition. So the catch phrase to promote the new service is the Hawaiian question Aia i HEA ke ka‘a ‘ohua? (‘there at where the vehicle passenger’) ‘Where is the bus?’ The answers, the HEA times, can be found at http://hea.thebus.org/. Not bad, eh, for a municipal transit authority?

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