Hulu: I don’t think that word means what you think it means

By Laurel Sutton

August 31, 2007

Hulu1-300x100News Corp. and NBC recently announced the name of their new online video joint venture: Hulu. Here’s the rationale behind this brand name, according to Jason Kilar, the CEO:

Why Hulu? Objectively, Hulu is short, easy to spell, easy to pronounce, and rhymes with itself. Subjectively, Hulu strikes us as an inherently fun name, one that captures the spirit of the service we’re building.

Yesterday a friend sent me link to a Boing Boing item in which someone claimed that oh noes! the word “hulu” means “butt” in Indonesian. They provided a link to the source, a website called Webster’s Online Dictionary, which has one page with multiple definitions of the word “hulu”. My first reaction was that of course they should have hired a naming company with global linguistic capabilities, or at least done some linguistic screening. But then I dug a bit deeper.

Webster’s Online Dictionary is NOT the same as or associated in any way with the Merriam-Webster online dictionary or Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (the gold standard for printed dictionaries). It’s a collection of definitions and translations thrown together by a guy named Philip M. Parker, who likes to collect books. (He’s also an author; check out his, er, interesting titles on Amazon.) The translations on his site have no attribution, references, or sources of any kind, which should be an immediate red flag.

I checked a few online Indonesian dictionaries, as well as a Malay dictionary we have in the Catchword library, and the word “hulu” is never translated as “butt”. The actual definition is “head”, both literally (the head of a human body) and metaphorically (the river head). It can sometimes be used for “handle” or “hilt”, and perhaps that’s where the mistranslation came from. Just to verify my own research, I contacted Hikmat Gumilar, a native speaker of Indonesian and a professional translator. His response: “Hulu means upstream or pate.”

So one person decided to Google the word “hulu”, clicked on a single amateur website that gave a bad translation, and now this piece of naming misinformation isall over the blogosphere. I predict it will become a brand name urban legend, like the Chevy Nova story. You got the scoop here: I’m a linguist, and I like debunking these things.

“Hulu” does NOT MEAN “butt”.

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