Thanks to Hawaii’s long history of immigration and ethnic diversity, its residents speak a unique form of English. You’ll hear words borrowed from Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese, and other languages. But the most prevalent non-English words you’ll hear are from the Hawaiian language, which is one of state’s two official languages (English is the other). Adding to the unique flavor of Hawaii’s English is the widespread use of pidgin (Hawaii creole) among locals.
When I sat down to brainstorm a list of all these words and phrases unique to Hawaii, regardless of their language origins, I ended up with such a long list that I had to subdivide it. So this post will be limited to Hawaiian-language words, and only the ones that you’ll probably encounter the most frequently. The rest will appear in future posts. (I’ve already got two planned: One devoted entirely to food-related words, and another on pidgin, slang, and localisms.)
Without further ado, here’s the first list…
akamai (AH-kah-MY) – Smart, clever, wise, witty, skilled.
aloha (ah-LOW-hah) – Hello, goodbye, love, affection, kindness, graciousness.
e komo mai (eh COH-mo MY) – Welcome, come inside.
ewa (EH-vah) – Leeward, westward. (Note that the “w” is pronounced like a “v”.)
hale (HAH-lay) – House.
haole (HOW-leh) – Traditional meaning: Foreigner. Modern meaning: Caucasian (not deragatory).
hapa (HAH-pah) – Part, half (for example, hapa haole). Someone of mixed racial or ethnic heritage, especially involving Asian or Pacific Islander heritage.
iki (EE-kee) – Little, small.
kai (KIE) – Ocean.
kama’aina (KAH-mah-EYE-nah) – “Person of the land.” Long-time resident. (Note: Kama’aina discounts apply to any resident of Hawaii, regardless of how long they’ve lived here.)
kane (KAH-neh) – Man, boy.
kapu (KAH-poo) – Forbidden, taboo, keep out.
keiki (KAY-kee) – Child.
kokua (koh-KOO-ah) – Help, assist.
kupuna (koo-POO-nah) – Respected elder, ancestor, adopted grandparent or great-aunt/uncle.
lanai (lah-NIE) – Patio, balcony, porch.
lei (LAY) – Necklace made of flowers, shells, feathers, leaves, or kukui nuts.
lu’au (LOO-ow) – Feast, party.
mahalo (mah-HAH-low) – Thank you.
makai (mah-KIE) – Toward the ocean.
malihini (MAH-lee-HEE-nee) – Newcomer.
mauka (MOW-kah) – Toward the mountain.
Mele Kalikimaka (MEH-leh kah-LEE-kee-MAH-kah) – Merry Christmas.
nui (NOO-ee) – Large, big.
‘ohana (oh-HAH-nah) – Family (either blood-related or adopted).
‘okole (OH-koh-leh) – Buttocks.
‘ono (OH-noh) – Delicious.
pakalolo (PAH-kah-LOW-low) – Marijuana.
pau (POW) – Done, finished, complete.
pau hana (POW HAH-nah) – Done working.
shishi (SHEE-shee) – Pee-pee (urinate).
tutu (TOO-too) – Grandmother (either blood-related or honorary).
ukulele (OO-koo-LAY-lay) – Small stringed musical instrument (note that the beginning is pronounced OO, not YOO).
wahine (wah-HEE-neh) – Woman, girl.
wikiwiki (WEE-kee-WEE-kee) – Quick, fast, speedy.
Addendum (thanks to my readers!)
a hui hou (AH HOO-ee HOH) – Goodbye.
e kala mai (EH KAH-lah MY) – Excuse me, sorry.
hapai (hah-PEYE) – Pregnant.
hele (HEH-leh) – To go, leave.
kalani (kah-LAH-nee) – Heaven.
kuleana (koo-lee-AH-nah) – Responsibility.
lokahi (loh-KAH-hee) – Unity, harmony, in agreement, peace.
lolo (LOH-loh) -Feeble-minded, stupid.
lua (LOO-ah) – Toilet, restroom.
luna (LOO-nah) – Boss, foreman, overseer.
no ka ‘oi (no ka oy) – Is the best.
opala (oh-PAH-lah) – Garbage, trash, litter.
opu (OH-poo) – Belly, stomach.
pilau (PEE-lau) – Rotten, stinky, dirty.
puka (POO-kah) – Hole, opening.
Want to learn more Hawaiian words? Check out “30 More Hawaiian Words Every New Resident Should Know.”