A Little Practical Hawaiian

A couple of months ago I started putting together what I had expected would be a pair of posts to bookend my (long-planned and nearly cancelled) family vacation to Hawaii. The idea was that I would look at Hawaiian words in English (and some English words in Hawaiian) with a before and after perspective: “before” would cover those Hawaiian words that seemed to be common and useful for a visitor; “after” would be the correction post, showing where the first one was wrong and also adding useful words observed in the wild during my visit.

For various reasons, the first post didn’t happen. Posting “Part Two of One” might not seem to make a lot of sense, but the general idea of these posts is still a good one, especially since the first one (not posted) would have been more wrong than right. Here is the follow-up without foreword: an anecdotal and unscientific account of Hawaiian words that visitors to the islands should know.

First things first: unless you spend all your time in the most touristy of tourist locations, “aloha” might not be the most important word to know. You’ll encounter it frequently, though, and it’s probably the Hawaiian word most likely to be known by non-Hawaiians. While it’s generally taken as meaning both hello and goodbye, that’s an inexact translation. It’s more along the lines of the Spanish “vaya con dios” or the Jamaican “walk good” or, perhaps more accurately, the Vulcan “live long and prosper.” It’s not simply about coming and going. I can’t think of an obvious English equivalent, and perhaps there isn’t one. A rough attempt might cite words and phrases we use (or have in the past used) that don’t strictly mean what their literal translations suggest: peace be with you, take it easy, how’s it going, or even good morning or goodbye. These are literally commands or questions, but usually no action or answer is expected. If you don’t believe me, try giving a real answer every time someone asks “how are you?” this week and see what kind of reactions you get.

The literal translation of aloha is somewhat disputed and sometimes contradictory; a 19th century source gives one of the best definitions, describing it as “A word expressing different feelings; as, love; affection; gratitude; kindness; pity; compassion; grief; the modern common salutation at meeting and parting.” Affection, pity, kindness, grief…that’s a lot for a single word to cover, and that only points to the complexity wrapped within it. It’s ironic that this source (Andrews) also commented that Hawaiian had “an absence of abstract words and general terms.” It’s worth comment that Andrews noted that aloha could also be used as an adjective or as a contemptuous salute. And aloha is far from the only word with numerous meanings: one example, a’a (familiar to many as one of the two primary types of Hawaiian lava), has 24 main listings in his dictionary. Many are at least tangentially related to lava (burning, angry, bold, stony) but others have no clear connection (a belt, a pocket, a dwarf).

(Of course, we could choose to view aloha as idiomatic, and argue that it never really carried the literal meaning of its definition, but why spoil everything?)

In nearly nine days on Hawaiʻi (the big island), there were some days I didn’t hear this word (aloha) spoken. But most of my time was spent on the rain forest side (around Hilo, Volcano, and Pahoa)—over on the Kailua-Kona side (far more touristy), I saw and heard the word more; just a few hours there accounted for more than half of my encounters with aloha.

Far more useful than aloha (and more common) was mahalo. It’s primarily used as an island equivalent of “thank you” or “thanks” but can also be taken as a sort of “have a nice day” or “see you again soon.” It’s a polite and friendly way to end a transaction or interaction. Some argue that this meaning isn’t original and that the word was pressed into service to create an analogue to a Western concept that didn’t exist in Hawaiian (I think I’ve mentioned before that “thank you” is perhaps the weirdest sentences in the English language). Andrews’ 1865 dictionary supports this, as mahalo is listed there but not with our contemporary meaning. Mahalo, as my son pointed out during our trip, can be subject to the same kind of abuse as aloha: he noted it plastered arbitrarily and nonsensically on gift shop tchotchkes when we were on the Kona side.

After mahalo, the list of useful words (in my—I stress again—unscientific survey) narrows quickly at the same time that the words get more specialized.

Keiki was one of the few non-specialized terms I encountered in conversation. I heard it used to describe children (the literal Hawaiian meaning) and also in a sense that could mean baby or little one. In a horticultural sense, I heard it used to describe new orchid plants. I assumed the speaker was simply mixing colloquial Hawaiian into the discussion, but later learned that keiki is actually the specific word used to describe this kind of small plant. We were visiting the Hawaiian Vanilla Company at the time (a stop I highly recommend to Big Island visitors; plan ahead and splurge on the full lunch; the talk and the food are both worth it).

Ohana is another term worth knowing. The best English equivalent is family, but not strictly in a blood or marriage sense, as it can extend to others. It’s become more and more common for Americans to make serious or half-serious references to their “tribe,” whether that means a shared profession, aesthetic outlook, political philosophy, or what have you. At the risk of corrupting or diluting a useful and important Hawaiian word, ‘ohana is probably a better term than tribe for these groupings.

Shaka. Now here’s one I didn’t see coming. That “hang loose” hand gesture associated with surf culture is actually a thing in Hawaii. It’s not the caricature it often seems to be in some parts of pop culture. Besides seeing it used as part of a slightly disturbing tourism campaign, I frequently noticed residents using it as a greeting and even, as the Wikipedia entry says: “Drivers will often use it on the road to communicate distant greetings and gratitude.” Like aloha, the shaka seemed to be used both in greeting and parting, and a precise literal meaning is not easy to convey.

Beyond that short list of words, there wasn’t much this visitor saw in regular use or needed to know to enjoy his stay. I had expected a number of other terms to be useful: lanai, luau, mana, kapu, wiki, kahuna, haole, wahine, and both makai and mauka. Lanai was useful to know, kapu appears regularly on warning signs, and wiki was used fairly often in advertising. I hardly encountered the others. E komo mai (sometimes cut to komo mai), “welcome,” was sometimes posted, and I heard it spoken a handful of times.

On the other hand, words for specific foods, plants and animals, and some geographic terms, were useful to know. I don’t travel to distant places to order a cheeseburger and fries, so learning local menu items was a necessity. My first meal on the island was a kalua pig sandwich, and the week included lau lau, loco moco, local Waimea beef, opakapaka and other fish, ‘ohi’a honey, macadamia nuts, lilikoi, and various other tropical fruits, along with the smoothest cup of (Kona) coffee I have ever tasted. To be accurate, most of these aren’t strictly Hawaiian (kalua, lau lau, and loco moco can make that claim) but for a New Englander few of these things are easily available. Of course, spam was on the menu (although not as often as you might think), but we’re already a spam-eating family. I didn’t really notice an opportunity to try poke, but you should know what it is, and I wish I’d discovered haupia a few days sooner. There are plenty of other edibles that would be considered exotic in most of the rest of the US, but they’re imported and not indigenous, so I’ll pass on listing them.

Native plants and animals useful to know (by their Hawaiian names) include the previously mentioned ohia (specifically ohia lehua, my new favorite tree), nene, honu (we saw both at fairly close quarters)…and then the list runs short, since I’m focusing on natives. Mongoose (we saw several) are not native, while coqui (oh, yes: we were staying in a loudly infested neighborhood) are a recent invader. There are many other beautiful or prolific plants on the island, of course, but, alas, few are actually native. It pained me, for instance, to learn that the lovely kahili ginger blooming around Volcano is a troublesome invasive (…I’ve spent much of the last four summers eradicating Japanese knotweed in my yard, so I understand the challenges).

Before I wrap up, geographical and related terms deserve a mention. Most visitors will eventually begin to notice patterns, and realize that certain place names repeat for a reason. For instance, as we drove the Saddle Road across leeward parts of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, it became clear looking at the map that most of the cinder cones had “pu’u” (hill) in their names; along the water, “lae” (point or cape) showed up a lot; “mauna” of course means mountain; and so on. Heiau (temple) is a useful term to know, as you’ll find many marked on maps (and might stumble across small ones that aren’t marked in some areas).

Okay. This post is too long already, and I haven’t even mentioned how surprisingly common pidgin (Hawaiian Creole English) was, both spoken and in print. It’s time to let you come up for air.

I’ve chosen not to give detailed explanations for most of the terms here; I assume that if you’re interested enough, you’ll do more research on your own, especially if you’re heading to Hawaii yourself. Our family was assumed to be local several times, merely because we had a little bit of knowledge about local geography, food, or language—it’s amazing how far a little effort will go and how much nicer your travel experience will be if you put a little effort in beforehand.


Note that I have not (yet) included correct placement of the ʻokina ( ʻ – the glottal stop character) in the Hawaiian words used in this post. Or any other necessary marks not usually seen in American English. That will be revised in the near future.

…I should also note that my time was spent entirely on the big island (Hawaiʻi), so my perspective was naturally limited.


About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
This entry was posted in Culture, Language, Things you should know, Words and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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