35 Hawaiian Words Every New Resident Should Know

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.”

14 comments

  1. awesome list!

    a few more i’d add:
    1) howzit (how are you?)
    2) grinds (good food)
    3) lolo (not smart)

    1. I’m adding these three to the draft of my future post on pidgin, slang, and localisms. Thanks!

      1. ah, i see, “true hawaiian” words. great list! i always wondered about the roots of lolo actually. it might be hawaiian but maybe I don’t know because I’m lolo.

        a few food items are also common: poi, laulau, poke, kalua

        also: opala (garbage) and kumu (teacher) are good. a recently relevant one too: hapai (pregnant)

        Ewa is good to know because although it’s a name of a town on Oahu, it also indicates direction (west).

        1. I stand corrected — I just looked in a Hawaiian dictionary, and “lolo” IS a Hawaiian word, not slang or pidgin. Onto the list it goes! So it is I who is “lolo,” not you!

          I have a whole separate food list that I’m drafting to post later, so I’ve got those four words covered. And “kumu” and “ewa” are included in “30 More Hawaiian Words Every Resident Should Know,” which you’ll receive if you sign up for my “Living In Hawaii 101″ newsletter.

          I forgot about “opala,” though, and “hapai” is a new one for me! So I’ll add both of those to this list. Thanks for the contributions!

          1. One question: When pronouncing “hapai,” is the emphasis on the first syllable, or the second? I’m guessing the second, but I wanted to make sure. Thanks!

  2. You sure got lots of vocabulary !

    How about puka?

    I use this one a lot.
    Hole.

  3. Great list! I’ve lived here 15 years and I just referenced it looking for the derivation of “lolo”
    A little tweak, e komo mai is with a ‘k’ since there’s no ‘c’ in Hawaiian.
    Great list, keep up the good work.

    1. Whoops! Fixing “komo” right now. I must have been unconsciously thinking about my mom’s old Perry Como Christmas album. 😉

      BTW, definition #2 in this entry may provide a clue to the derivation of “lolo”: If an animal’s brain is eaten, it’s brainless (or stupid), yeah?

  4. This list had me cracking up before work! I really enjoyed reading through your blog. Being that I’ve lived in Hawaii all my life it went unnoticed how simple phrases could easily confuse tourists and other non-locals. I could offer some words we use daily:
    • E Kala Mai – excuse me, sorry
    • Hele – to go, leave
    • A Hui hou – goodbye
    • Malama – to take care

    And here are some non-Hawaiian local favorites:
    • Shoots – see you later
    • Rajah (raw-jah) – yes or ok, agreement
    • Tanks – thankyou
    • Bra – referring to male friends
    • K den – bye

    1. I agree! (Funny, I live right by Kalani High School, but I never knew what that word meant. Thanks!)

  5. Hapa was first and foremost used for part Hawaiian and part Caucasian. It since changed because there are fewer and fewer native Hawaiians. It was never meant, until recent for mixed Asian.

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