I had always vaguely wondered about the place name Bikini (after which the famous swimwear was named); now, thanks to an exhaustive investigation by piloklok (Bob Kennedy’s linguistics blog, which has been promoted to the blogroll for this service to etymology), I know that the Marshallese form is Pikinni and that this “is composed of pik ‘surface’ and ni ‘coconut’.” Now I have only two questions: 1) Is the stress, as my Webster’s Geographical Dictionary and the Wikipedia article say, on the first syllable? and 2) What does “piloklok” mean?
Update. See now Jory Dayne’s extremely informative comment in this Wordorigins thread:
Pik and Ni are glossed as ‘plane surface’ and ‘coconut’ in The Marshallese-English Dictionary—and according to Abo, Bender, Cappele & DeBrum, Pik,Ni is the origin of the place name Pikinni. I guess the real mystery, however, is why the Marshallese opted to single that particular islet out for that specific feature, when nearly all the other islets in the whole of the group share almost identical features: namely, a flat surface where coconuts are growing.
There is another gloss for Pik, and that is to fly, as in the flight of birds, or flapping. Given the tendency to name places for an apparently arbitrary, isolated event, this seems like it could also be a possibility—perhaps in a storm or what have you; that’s pure speculation on on my part, however.
As for stress, I would offer that PIK(ih)NI was probably the original pronunciation—for a couple reasons.
1. I’m willing to bet that the second ‘i’ in Pikinni/bikini is actually just an excrescent vowel… For instance, the Marshallese word for ‘doctor’ is taktõ (dahkduh)—borrowed from English. It is pronounced, however, as DAHK(ih)Duh. A non-loan word, jerbal follows the same pattern. It is pronounced JEHR(ih)bahl.
So you’re probably looking at the name actually being Pikni, with the excrescent vowel inserted between the two parts to help it conform to custom. Other place names also follow this pattern…
2. The ‘N’ in Ni, is a heavier ‘n’—the doubling in the current spelling (Pikinni) is probably to reflect that (although they have recently switched to using a cedilla beneath the heavy consonants to indicate this). So while the stress would be placed on Pik, the weight of the ‘n’ would give that syllable a stress of its own.
It’s worth mentioning, though, that the current pronunciation of Pikinni seems like it has changed to match the one common to English speakers (biKIni). I offer that with the caveat that I have only been in contact with Marshallese who have relocated to the U.S. (although most very, very recently)—so it may just be that group, while native Marshallese are “keepin it real.”