1895-1900, Americanism; < Hawaiianʿukulele leaping flea (ʿuku flea + lele to jump, leap), a nickname given to British army officer Edward Purvis (who popularized the instrument at the court of King Kalakaua), in reference to his lively playing style
1896, from Hawaiian 'ukulele, lit. "leaping flea," from 'uku "louse, flea" + lele "to fly, jump, leap." So called from the rapid motion of the fingers in playing it. It developed from a Port. instrument introduced to the islands c.1879. Abbreviated form uke is attested from 1915.