Top 15 Hawaiian words to know before you go to Hawaii

Top 15 Hawaiian words to know before you go to Hawaii

If you’re going to the Aloha State, you probably already know that aloha is Hawaiian for “hello,” “goodbye” and “love,” a luau is a feast with entertainment (generally speaking) and a lei is a flower garland. Everyone who saw “Lilo and Stitch” also knows that ‘ohana means family (“and family means no one gets left behind.”) But there are other words in the indigenous Polynesian language that you’ll also see and hear often in the islands. Here are some top picks to know before you go:

  1.  ‘Āina (eye-nuh) — The land, which is revered in Hawaiian culture. Native Hawaiians call themselves keiki o ka ‘āina, children of the land; mālama ka ‘āina, take care of the land, is a deeply held value.
  2. Heiau (hey–yow) — Traditional Hawaiian shrine or temple (or plurals of those words.) Sometimes they’re part of larger compounds, such as Pu‘ukoholā Heiau National Historic Site on the Kohala Coast of the Big Island (pictured above.)
  3. Kāne (kah-neh) — Man or men; boyfriend or husband. Bathroom signs may bear his word, along with an outlined figure in an aloha shirt or sarong, or a male petroglyph stick figure.
  4. Kapu (kah-poo) — Taboo; sacred; off-limits. The “kapu system” refers to the traditional beliefs governing the actions of men versus women, and the chiefly class versus commoners, among other practices. These days, “Kapu” frequently appears instead of “Keep Out” or “No Trespassing” on signs posted on private property as well as sacred sites such as heiau and burial grounds. Show your aloha for Hawaii by abiding by them.
  5. Keiki (kay-key) — Child or children. Many tour operators and restaurants offer keiki discounts. Note: Keiki also means “boy”; for “girl,” use kaikamahine (kigh-kuh-mah-hee-nay.)
  6. Kōkua (koh-koo-uh) —To help or assist; helper or assistance. If you see “kōkua” on a trash can, that’s because you’re being asked to help keep something clean; “trash” is actually ‘opala (oh-pah-lah.) Always mālama ka ‘āina by picking up your ‘opala.
  7. Kupuna (koo-poo-nuh) — Elder, senior citizen; also revered in Hawaiian culture. The plural is kūpuna (pronounced with the first syllable longer) and kupuna discounts are common, too.
  8. Lua (loo-uh) — Toilet or restroom (literally, a pit in the ground.)
  9. Makai (mah-kigh) — Toward the sea (kai). Very frequently used in directions; see also mauka, below.
  10. Mahalo (mah-ha-low) — Thanks, thank you. Mahalo nui means “many thanks,“ mahalo nui loa means “thank you very much.”
  11. Mauka (mow-kuh, with the first syllable pronounced closer to the sound in mouse) — Inland, toward the uplands (uka) or mountains; in contrast with makai.
  12. ‘Ono (oh-no) — Delicious. Often spelled the same as ono, the fish also known as wahoo.
  13. Puka — Hole, holes. The recurring trend of puka shell necklaces, named for the holes that make the shells easy to string, means this one should be easy to remember.
  14. Pūpū (poo-poo) — Shell or appetizer; also shells or appetizers. (Save the naughty puns; islanders have heard them as often as the ones about getting lei’d.)
  15. Wahine (wah-hee-nay or vah-hee-nay) — Woman; girlfriend or wife (plural wāhine, pronounced with the first syllable held a bit longer.) 

Notes: Pronunciation guides are approximate; for more detailed definitions, see the online Hawaiian dictionaries at For various reasons, you’ll see Hawaiian words like the ones above written either with or without the kahakō or macron (a line over vowels) and the ‘okina, the single-open-quote character that represents a glottal stop, or audible pause, before or between vowels. These marks do affect pronunciation and meaning, but words are typically understandable in written context without them. Also check out these top 13 Hawaiian Pidgin words, which may combine English, Hawaiian or Hawaiian Pidgin.

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