The official languages of the state of Hawaii are English and Hawaiian. But there’s also a third unofficial language, which is spoken by many locals in everyday conversation: Hawaii Pidgin English.
Hawaiian Pidgin has evolved from the old plantation days, when immigrants came from different countries to work in Hawaii’s sugar cane fields. First came the Chinese, Japanese, and Portuguese in the mid-1800s. In order to be able to communicate with each other and the English-speaking plantation owners, a common language developed that borrowed words, phrases, intonations, and grammatical structures from these 4 different languages. When the Okinawans, Puerto Ricans, Koreans, and Filipinos started immigrating to Hawaii around 1900, bits of their distinct languages were also thrown into the mix.
Today, you can hear Pidgin being spoken among some locals in informal situations. Pidgin words and phrases are also sometimes used in local advertisements. As a newcomer to Hawaii, you won’t be expected to speak Pidgin to locals (in fact, any attempt to do so will probably be met with strange looks or laughter!). But it can be helpful — and fun, frankly! — to be familiar with these words and expressions when you encounter them.
So to that end, I’ve compiled this list of some common Pidgin words and phrases, and have thrown in some Hawaiian slang for good measure. This is certainly not a comprehensive list — Pidgin is truly its own language, and a whole dictionary would be needed to contain all of its unique vocabulary.
If you are interested in learning more Pidgin words, phrases, and expressions, e-Hawaii.com has a lengthy list with lots of great examples of usage. And to see more Pidgin in action — complete with illustrations and English translations — I recommend the highly entertaining “Pidgin To Da Max” and its sequels.
If there are any other words or phrases that you don’t see here that you think every newcomer to Hawaii should know, check to see if they’re on one of my previous word lists. If not, leave a comment and I’ll add them to this list.
Aloha Fridays – Similar to “casual Fridays” on the U.S. mainland, during which employees are allowed to dress more casually or in aloha wear, in anticipation of the weekend.
aloha shirt – Also known as a “Hawaiian shirt” on the U.S. mainland.
auntie – A respectful term for a woman who is of your parents’ generation or older: The aunties have volunteered at the school for many years. A respectful way to address such a woman: Can I help you carry that, auntie?
aurie – An expression of farewell, equivalent to “All right, then — goodbye.” See also: ‘k den.
borinkee – A person of Puerto Rican descent.
brah – Short for braddah or bruddah (“brother”). A casual, friendly way of addressing a male: Eh, brah — you wanna go surf?
broke da mouth (broke dah mowt) – Extremely delicious: Dis Potagee soup broke da mouth, auntie!
buk buk (book book) – A person of Filipino descent (see also manong). Also: Mismatched.
bumbai (bum-BYE) – Short for “by and by.” Otherwise, or else, eventually: You bettah study bumbai you flunk da test tomorrow.
buss you up or all buss up – To fight and win, or hang one on drinking.
catch cracks – To get beaten up.
chang – Miserly, overly frugal: C’mon, gimme some more, brah — you so chang!
chicken skin – Goosebumps: Dat ghost story always give me chicken skin!
choke - A lot.
crip - Very good.
da kine – A catch-all phrase that is often used to fill in a mental blank when talking, similar to “whatchamacallit”: Let’s go to da kine place we grind at last week.
grind – Eat.
grinds – Delicious food.
hanabata - Mucus from a runny nose, boogers.
hanabata days – Equivalent to saying “back when I was a kid”: I know him from hanabata days. See also: small kid time.
haole (HOW-leh) – A Caucasian person, not including people of Portuguese descent.
howzit – A greeting, equivalent to “How are you?” or “How is it going?”
kanaka (kah-NAH-kah) – A person of Native Hawaiian descent.
katonk or kotonk (kah-TONK or koh-TONK) – A person of Asian descent born and raised on the U.S. mainland.
kau kau (KOW kow) – Food, eat.
‘k den – An expression of farewell, equivalent to “OK, then — goodbye.” See also: aurie.
like beef? – An invitation to fight, equivalent to “You wanna step outside and settle this?” (see also scrap).
lolo – Stupid, absent-minded, crazy. Moron, imbecile. (NOTE: To the large Filipino population in Hawail, lolo means something completely different: “grandpa”)
manong – A person of Filipino descent (see also buk buk).
moke (MOHK) – A local man who looks and acts tough.
no act – Equivalent to saying “Don’t lie.”
no need – Equivalent to “you/I don’t need it” or “that’s not necessary”: No need shoes in Hawaii — just slippahs!
pake (PAH-keh) – A person of Chinese descent. A tightwad.
pocho – A person of Portuguese descent. (See also potagee.)
popolo – A dark-skinned person of African descent.
potagee (POH-tah-gee) – A person of Portuguese descent. (See also pocho.)
rajah dat (RAH-jah dat) – Equivalent to “Roger, that!” meaning “Yes,” “OK,” or “I agree.”
rubbish – Trash, garbage.
scrap – Fight, argue (see also like beef?): In small kid time, me and him scrap all da time afta school.
shaka (SHAH-kah) – Hand signal in which index, middle, and ring finger are folded down while thumb and pinkie are extended, with palm facing body. Means “hi,” “goodbye,” or “thank you.”
shoots - Equivalent to saying “OK” or “I strongly agree”: Shoots, I’ll take some of dat free kau kau!
shoots den – Equivalent to saying “shoots then,” meaning “OK, goodbye” or “OK, see you later.”
sistah – The feminine equivalent of brah.
slippahs – Equivalent to “slippers,” meaning flip-flop sandals.
small kid time – Equivalent to saying “back when I was younger”: I know her since small kid time. See also: hanabata days.
sole (SO-leh) – A person of Samoan descent.
stink eye – Dirty look: Da tita gimme stink eye when I ask her out.
talk stink – Trash talk. Talk behind someone’s back.
talk story – To chat or gossip. To reminisce with friends.
tanks – Equivalent to saying “thanks” in a sarcastic way: Tanks, bruddah — now dat I no need!
tita (TEE-tah) – A local woman who is tough and masculine. Feminine equivalent of moke.
uku (OO-koo) – Lots: No need — I got uku million of dat.
uncle – Masculine equivalent of auntie.
wagon – Shopping cart.
yobo – A person of Korean descent.
For more up-to-date, detailed info on moving to Hawaii, check out my e-book: Moving To Hawaii: A Step-By-Step Guide