TNQDE: The Music of the Fleas

I’ve been lax about etymology posts lately, for which I do and do not apologize. I do, if you’re completely addicted to the way I share words with you and long desperately for my next post. I don’t apologize, however because I worked over fifty hours last week, forty-seven of which were served in the sweltering, humid freedom of the great outdoors. Camp was cooler today and a little smoother, so here’s a word dedicated to my weekend work: tuning half a dozen cheap ukuleles.


The ukulele (or “uke,” as those in the know might say) is associated strongly with Hawaii, but a quick search for the history turned up an interesting piece of trivia. Although the ukulele was invented on Hawaii, it was not a part of Hawaiian culture prior to the presence of Europeans. The invention of the ukulele is usually attributed to Portuguese immigrants Manuel Nunes, Joao Fernandes, and Augustine Dias, sometime after 1879. Hawaiians did name the instrument (around 1896, just prior to the U.S. annexation of Hawaii), calling it a “jumping” (uku) “flea” (lele).

As the story goes, the instrument was named for the speed with which the early players played. Fleas have another part in the story of the ukulele, a part which I have yet to figure out. Musicians use iconic tunes to help them learn to recognize intervals. “Here comes the bride,” for example, is used to help you learn to hear the perfect fourth (Do, Fa). “Twinkle, twinkle” (as in “little star”) is used for the perfect fifth (Do, Sol). Ukes are traditionally tuned G, C, E, A, with the G being the one above the C, so the interval pattern you need to recognize is Sol, Do, Mi, La.

For no sensible reason that I have been able to find, uke players attach this progression to the words “My dog has fleas.” If anyone can explain to me why this was chosen and has been perpetuated, I will write you a song and post it on Youtube.


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