Common Hawaiian Words & Meanings | Hawaiian Phrases & Terms (2023)

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Hawaii’s isolated position in the Pacific Ocean has made it one of the most unique, biodiverse places in the world. Did you know that the Hawaiian islands are home to over 10,000 endemic species that are found nowhere else in the world—5,000 of which are insects?[i]

In addition to unique flora and fauna you won’t find anywhere else, the Hawaiian islands also feature a culture that’s distinctively its own. Historians believe that the islands have been occupied by humans since about 400 C.E. The culture established by the people who originally made Hawaii their home still infuses the islands today.

To help you settle into your new home in Hawaii, we wanted to offer you quick introduction to some of the new vocabulary you’ll be exposed to. In this list, we’ll take you beyond the basics to give you a strong sense of the rich culture of the islands that you will soon call home.

A Note About Hawaiian Spelling

As with the stories, chants, and songs of the ancient Hawaiians, language was an oral tradition in Hawaii. When missionaries arrived in the early 1800s, they created a written version of the language, based on what they heard spoken by the Native Hawaiians. Two diacritical marks were established in that written language:

  • The ‘okina, often written as an apostrophe, which indicates a glottal stop between vowels.
  • The kahako, a horizontal line written over a vowel. In addition to indicating a longer vowel sound, the presence of a kahako can completely change the meaning of a word. Here’s an example: kala is name for a fish but kalā is the sun.

For this article, we have used the ‘okina to spell Hawaiian words. However, because browsers often do not support the kahako, we have omitted it for clarity.ii

Now, let’s dive intothese 14 new additions to your vocabulary.

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1.The Deeper Meaning ofAloha(ah-LO-ha)

Although this is probably the most common word you’ll hear and see in Hawaii, many people don’t know the deeper meaning behind this greeting.Yes, aloha can serve as both “hello” and “goodbye,” but when you say aloha to another person, you’re saying so much more.Alohameansliterally“presence of breath”(alo: presence;ha: breath).It’s a concept so important to the Hawaiian people that it is actually written into the state law:

In short, the word aloha embodies a spirit that acknowledges the community between the people who live in Hawaii, as well as their responsibility and good will toward each other.So the next time you hear someone say “aloha,” you’ll know what they’re really saying, and you can respond withalohaof your own.

[§5-7.5] “Aloha Spirit.”

“Aloha Spirit” is the coordination of mind and heart within each person. It brings each person to the self. Each person must think and emote good feelings to others. In the contemplation and presence of the life force, “Aloha,” the following unuhi laula loa may be used:

  • Akahai,” meaning kindness, to be expressed with tenderness;
  • Lokahi,” meaning unity, to be expressed with harmony;
  • Oluolu,” meaning agreeable, to be expressed with pleasantness;
  • Haahaa,” meaning humility, to be expressed with modesty;
  • Ahonui,” meaning patience, to be expressed with perseverance.

These are traits of character that express the charm, warmth and sincerity of Hawaii’s people. It was the working philosophy of Native Hawaiians and was presented as a gift to the people of Hawaii.

  • “Aloha” is more than a word of greeting or farewell or a salutation.
  • “Aloha” means mutual regard and affection and extends warmth in caring with no obligation in return.
  • “Aloha” is the essence of relationships in which each person is important to every other person for collective existence.
  • “Aloha” means to hear what is not said, to see what cannot be seen and to know the unknowable.

(b) In exercising their power on behalf of the people and in fulfillment of their responsibilities, obligations and service to the people, the legislature, governor, lieutenant governor, executive officers of each department, the chief justice, associate justices, and judges of the appellate, circuit, and district courts may contemplate and reside with the life force and give consideration to the “Aloha Spirit.” [L 1986, c 202, §1]

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2. What Does Pono (PO-no) Mean?

Pono is a Hawaiian word that is often translated as “righteousness.” However, like aloha, its meaning extends far beyond this simple definition. Pono, like many words in the Hawaiian language, can embody many different meanings. (In the world of linguistics, this is called polysemy.) In fact, when Mary Kawena Pukui and Samuel Hoyt Elbert created their Hawaiian dictionary in 1957, they gave the word several meanings and 83 English translation equivalents! iii

  1. Goodness, uprightness, morality, moral qualities, correct or proper procedure, excellence, well-being, prosperity, welfare, benefit, behalf, equity, sake, true condition or nature, duty; moral, fitting, proper, righteous, right, upright, just, virtuous, fair, beneficial, successful, in perfect order, accurate, correct, eased, relieved; should, ought, must, necessary.
  2. Completely, properly, rightly, well, exactly, carefully, satisfactorily, much (an intensifier).
  3. Property, resources, assets, fortune, belongings, equipment, household goods, furniture, gear of any kind, possessions, accessories, necessities.
  4. Use, purpose, plan.
  5. Hope.

In simple terms, though,pono is probably most simply translated as “doing what is right.”For example:

Visiting one of Kauai’s pristine beaches and leaving your trash under a tree wouldn’t be considered pono.

If you see a green sea turtle while snorkeling off Makena Beach in Maui, observing it from a distance so as not to interfere with its natural swimming pattern would be considered pono.

Many people believe being pono has its own personal rewards. That said, actingponoin your interactions with humans, nature,and the land will also help you integrate nicely into the community you’ll find in the Hawaiian islands.

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3.What AreSlippers(SLIP-ersor SLIP-ahz) in Hawaii?

If you go to a neighbor’s house and see a sign to leave your slippers outside, don’t be confused! “Slippers” (or “slippahs” as it’s often said) is local Pidgin for flip flops.First, a little history:

What Is Pidgin?Pidgin is an English creole language that started on the sugarcane plantations of Hawaii. It was originally a way for English speakers to communicate with native Hawaiians and foreign immigrants who came to Hawaii to work. If you’d like to learn more about Pidgin, check out the entertaining Pidgin to da Max and its companion, Pidgin to da Max Hana Hou! (Hanahoumeans “again” or “encore!”)

Where Did Slippers Come From?Slippers find their origins in the zori, which are traditional Japanese sandals. Thanks to the surf boom of the ’60s, these shoes became increasingly common on themainland.

While the word “slippers” may be new to you, wearing flip flops probably isn’t. Even so, we have one more tip foryou:

Leave your slippers outside when you visit anyone’s home. (That rule goes for all shoes!)

This custom, which is believed to have been brought over by Japanese immigrants, shows respect for your host. On a practical level, it also keeps you from tracking in sand, dust,and dirt to someone’s home.You can simply add your footwear to the pile you’ll find by just about everyone’s doorstep. Some people even have wire racks set up just for this purpose. Just remember to get the right shoes on the way out!

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4.What DoesKokua(ko-KOO-ah) Mean?

Kokua is another Hawaiian word that has a very simple surface meaning—to help. You may see it featured on the tray tables of a Hawaiian Airlines plane, asking you to make sure they’re folded up for everyone’s safety when taking off and landing.

However, like the other Hawaiian words we’ve shared, kokua also has a deeper layer.Itrevolves around a desire to help others without any expectation of receiving anything in return. It also reflects the Hawaiian spirit of community, the idea that we can and should rely on each other to help build a strong community.To give you an example, the healthy people who voluntarily agreed to move to the leper colony on Molokai were called the kokua.

So as you make your home in Hawaii, don’t be surprised if you’re offered assistance out of the blue, like a neighbor volunteering his truck to help you pick up your new mattress. Accept this kokua with a heartymahalo(keep reading for more on this word!) and pass it on when you can.

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5.What AreGrindz(GRINDS)?

Like “slippers,”grindzis also a Pidgin term you’ll hear in Hawaii. When you hear news of “onogrindz,” head to the source to enjoy delicious(ono)food(grindz), which you’ll find a-plenty in the islands. Some of the localgrindzyou’ll encounterinclude:

Common Hawaiian Words & Meanings | Hawaiian Phrases & Terms (7)Loco Moco(loh-koo moh-koo) – Loco moco is Hawaii’s popular comfort food, most often consisting of sticky rice at the bottom, topped with a hamburger patty, a fried egg, and the thick gravy that is poured on top of the whole combination, although there are numerous variations using bacon, ham, chicken, oysters, and shrimp.

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Poke(PO-kay)– Poke is diced raw fish, often seasoned with sea salt, soy sauce and sesame oil, although you can find many varietiesin Hawaii. Poke is a staple in most grocery stores, so you can simply grab some while picking up bread and milk at Foodland or Safeway. If you’re into the keto lifestyle, poke packs the perfect protein punch!

Common Hawaiian Words & Meanings | Hawaiian Phrases & Terms (9)Spam Musubi – Hawaii still consumes the most Spam per capita than any other state:fivecans per person, per year. Considering the strong Japanese influence in Hawaii, Spam Musubi is a logical extension: a slab of spam on top of sushi rice, wrapped with a strip of nori to hold it all together. If sushi isn’t your thing, you’ll still have plenty of opportunities to fulfill your Spam quota. Many restaurants serve it with rice and eggs over easy for breakfast.

This list only scratches the surface!In addition to other local delicacies like poi,lomilomisalmon, malasadas,and saimin, you’ll finddelicious food from all over the world in Hawaii. A little adventurous spirit for new tastes will reward you many times over.

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6.What DoesKapu(ka-POO)Mean?

Kapu literally means “forbidden.” The word dates back to a set of restrictions formerly held in Hawaiian society. For example, men and women eating together was at one time considered kapu. It was also kapu to look directly at the chief orto evencome in contact with his shadow, for fear of stealing hismana(life force).

(If you want to dig more deeply intoancientHawaiian history, you may enjoyHawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen: Liliuokalanior Captive Paradise: A History of Hawaii by James L. Haley.)

Today, you’ll most likely see a sign with the word kapu on a fence. In this case, you can translate it to “no trespassing.”The Hawaiian islands are chock full of secret wonders like waterfalls and swimming holes on private land. It can be tempting to hop a fence or sneak in around a stand of trees. However, it is considered extremely disrespectful to thelandownersand can get you in serious trouble.

Additionally, many places are considered kapu because they’re sacred to the Hawaiian people. Burial grounds andheiau(Hawaiian temples) are perfect examples.So when you see the word kapu, do what is pono and find another area of the islands to explore.

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7.What DoesMakai(ma-KAI)Mean?What DoesMauka(MOW-ka)Mean?

When you live on an isolated island in the middle of the Pacific, your life revolves around the ocean. Nowhere is thismore clearin the Hawaiian words makai and mauka which mean:


Toward the water / on the ocean side


Toward the mountain / on the mountain side

You’ll often hear these two words when getting directions. For example, if a house is on the makai side of the highway, it will be near the water, so you’ll want to turn toward the ocean to get there. If someone lives up the mountain, the directions might go something like this:

“Turn mauka  and go up the hill until you see the red house on the right.”

Thanks to your smartphone, it may have been a while since you’ve actually asked for directions. Although Google Maps works on many sections of the island, there are areas where cell coverage is spotty. In these cases, old-fashioned directions—and understanding the difference between makai and mauka—can make all the difference!

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8.What Does‘Ohana(oh-HA-na) Mean?

The Hawaiian word ohana means “family,” but in a much more inclusive sense. Yourohanamight start with blood relations but it also includes all kinds of informally adopted members. The extended meaning reflects the Hawaiian sense of community responsibility and interdependence that exists between all the people who share the same small island.

If you’re looking at property listings, the word ohana takes on another meaning. ’Ohana units are small cottages or guest units that go with a larger house. Some are fully independent withcompletekitchen and bathroom facilities. Others have minimal or shared kitchens and bathrooms. Additionally, some are legal to rent, while others are not. Originally, these units were designed foractualmembers ofone’sohana, but the definition has gotten a little looser over time.

Perhaps most importantly,though,the wordohanarepresents an opportunity for you.Once you move to Hawaii, you’ll have the chance to become part of a newohanaand extend your own definition of family.

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9.What DoesMahalo(ma-HA-lo)Mean?

This one’spretty simple, and yet you’ll get a ton of mileage out of it in Hawaii.Mahalomeans “thank you.” Feel free to use it liberallywherever you go to keep thatalohaspirit alive and well.

If you want to get fancy, you can saymahalonuiloa(ma-HA-loNEW-eeLOW-ah)—or “thank you very much.”

Interestingly enough, theParker Dictionarynotes that the use of the wordmahaloto express gratitude is a moderndevelopment. The wordwas originallyused to express wonder, surprise, and admiration.ivYet another layer to consider the next time you share the word to express gratitude!

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10.What Is aHaole(HOW-lee)?

Haoleis aword is generally used to describe a foreigner, someone who isn’t Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, often a white person. The most common explanation for the origin of the wordsplitsit into its parts:





So, literally,ha’olemeans“without breath”or “withoutthe breath of life” as it’s more poetically translated.Additionally, although the ‘okina indicates a glottal stop betweenhaand‘ole, you’ll most often hear this word elided as simply HOW-lee.

If you hear this word, it’s most often not an insult. (Context will be your best friend in this case!)Usually, it’s justusedas a way todescribe a person’s background.Soif you hear it used in reference to you, don’ttake it personally!

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11.What Is aKahuna(ka-HOO-na)?

Outside of Hawaii, you’ve probably heard this wordas part of the phrase“the big kahuna.” Often, it refers to someone who’s animportant or powerful person—”the big kahuna of the neighborhood,” for example.

Traditionally,kahunaare people who practice a trade or an art, such as akahunalapaau(a medical practitioner). In ancient Hawaii, the word by itself meant a priest or a person who performed sacrifices.vIn other words, akahunais generallysomeone with special knowledge, a person who deserves respect.

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12. What DoesWahine(wa-HEE-nay) Mean? WhatDoesKane(KA-nay)Mean?

Although you’ll hear these words in plenty of other situations, in Hawaii, you’ll often encounter the wordswahineandkaneon bathroom signs.For obvious reasons, it’s important to get these two right!





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13. What DoesKeiki(KAY-key) Mean?

When your kids are looking for food that’s more their speed—chicken tenders, burgers, mac and cheese—look no further than the restaurant’skeikimenu.After all,keikimeans child.

If you’re bringing your family to Hawaii with you, keep an eye out for this word which will help point you toward opportunities for yourkeikiin Hawaii—programs, activities, sports, play opportunities, and more.

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14. What Does ‘Aina (AY-na) Mean?

‘Aina means land, and this word has particular importance within Hawaii, since the culture of the Native Hawaiians is deeply intertwined with the ‘aina.

Ancient Hawaiians revered their land. They believed that if they took care of the land it would, in turn, take care of them. As a result, they carefully balanced the needs of the land with the needs of the creatures living on that land, including humans. The land was believed to have its own mana—spiritual energy and power. In short, the land was sacred to the native Hawaiians, whose descendants carry these beliefs forward

You can still see the importance of the ‘aina today in Hawaii. One notable spot is in the Hawaii state motto:

Ua mau ke ea o ka ‘aina i ka pono.
The life of the land is preserved in righteousness.

Because the aina is so important to life on an island, it’s important to care for it. You’ll likely hear the phrase malamaaina, which means “to take care of, tend” the land.vii It’s a good way to live out the spirit of aloha in Hawaii.

Can't get enough of these Hawaiian words?

We love Ulukau, the Hawaiian Electronic Library, and their searchable Hawaiian’s a great spot for learning more Hawaiian words to add into your vocabulary.



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