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believe that the islands have been occupied by humans since about 400 C.E. The culture established by the people who originally made Hawaii their home still infuses the islands today.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.

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

flower lai on wood deck

1. The Deeper Meaning of Aloha (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. Aloha means literally “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 with aloha of 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]

reuseable bag with globe

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:

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

slippers on beach

3. What Are Slippers (SLIP-ers or 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! (Hana hou means “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 the mainland.

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

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! 

group of volunteers walking in a park

4. What Does Kokua (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. It revolves 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 hearty mahalo (keep reading for more on this word!) and pass it on when you can. 

5. What Are Grindz (GRINDS)? 

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

loco moco bowlLoco 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.

salmon poke bowl

Poke (PO-kay) – Poke is diced raw fish, often seasoned with sea salt, soy sauce and sesame oil, although you can find many varieties in 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! 

Spam Musubi – Hawaii still consumes the most Spam per capita than any other statefive cans 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, lomi lomi salmon, malasadas, and saimin, you’ll find delicious food from all over the world in Hawaii. A little adventurous spirit for new tastes will reward you many times over. 

Kapu sign on yard

6. What Does Kapu (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 or to even come in contact with his shadow, for fear of stealing his mana (life force). 

(If you want to dig more deeply into ancient Hawaiian history, you may enjoy  Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen: Liliuokalani or 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 the landownersand can get you in serious trouble. 

Additionally, many places are considered kapu because they’re sacred to the Hawaiian people. Burial grounds and heiau (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. 

highway road through hawaii

7. What Does Makai (ma-KAI) Mean? What Does Mauka (MOW-ka) Mean? 

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

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!

heart drawn into sand on beach

8. What Does ‘Ohana (oh-HA-na) Mean? 

The Hawaiian word ohana means “family,” but in a much more inclusive sense. Your ohana might 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 with complete kitchen 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 for actual members of one’s ‘ohana, but the definition has gotten a little looser over time. 

Perhaps most importantly, though, the word ‘ohana represents an opportunity for you. Once you move to Hawaii, you’ll have the chance to become part of a new ohana and extend your own definition of family. 

plumeria on beach

9. What Does Mahalo (ma-HA-lo) Mean? 

This one’s pretty simple, and yet you’ll get a ton of mileage out of it in Hawaii. Mahalo means “thank you.” Feel free to use it liberally wherever you go to keep that aloha spirit alive and well. 

If you want to get fancy, you can say mahalo nui loa (ma-HA-lo NEW-ee LOW-ah)—or “thank you very much.” 

Interestingly enough, the Parker Dictionary notes that the use of the word mahalo to express gratitude is a modern development. The word was originally used to express wonder, surprise, and admiration.iv Yet another layer to consider the next time you share the word to express gratitude! 

Woman hanging a lai on ha'ole man

10. What Is a Haole (HOW-lee)? 

Haole is a word 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 word splits it into its parts: 

So, literally, ha’ole means “without breath” or “without the breath of life” as it’s more poetically translated. Additionally, although the ‘okina indicates a glottal stop between ha and ‘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 just used as a way to describe a person’s background. So if you hear it used in reference to you, don’t take it personally! 

Respectable elder woman waving from the yard

11. What Is a Kahuna (ka-HOO-na)? 

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

Traditionally, kahuna are people who practice a trade or an art, such as a kahuna lapaau (a medical practitioner). In ancient Hawaii, the word by itself meant a priest or a person who performed sacrifices.v In other words, a kahuna is generally someone with special knowledge, a person who deserves respect.  

women's bathroom sign

12. What Does Wahine (wa-HEE-nay) Mean? What Does Kane (KA-nay) Mean? 

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

keiki dancer on the beach with friends

13. What Does Keiki (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’s keiki menu. After all, keiki means 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 your keiki in Hawaii—programs, activities, sports, play opportunities, and more.  

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 today.vi

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 Dictionaries at wehewehe.org. It’s a great spot for learning more Hawaiian words to add into your vocabulary. 

i. https://www.lovebigisland.com/quick-and-remarkable-facts-about-hawaii/endemic-species-hawaii/
ii. http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20150625-islands-where-evolution-ran-riot
iii. http://www.hawaiihistory.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=ig.page&PageID=280; https://www.iolanipalace.org/information/hawaiian-language/
iv. https://wehewehe.org
v. https://wehewehe.org
vi. https://wehewehe.org/
vii. https://dashboard.hawaii.gov/; https://blackkoa.com/surfboards/malama-aina/
viii. https://wehewehe.org

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