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Hawaiian Words

Updated on January 21, 2010
A local BK trash can
A local BK trash can

Commonly Confused

There are a few words that I have seen commonly confused, substituted for one another, and misunderstood, so I've made a list of the ones I hear the most. 

Opala (oh-paw-law) and Mahalo (maw-haw-low)

    These are only confused because they are both commonly seen on trash cans.  Opala is the word that actually means trash; the mahalo is just posted thanking people for disposing of trash properly. 

Confusing thank you with trash is something to definitely avoid!

Luau (loo-ow) and lau lau (lao-lao) and lua (loo-ah)

    These are all very different words.  A luau is a gathering where food is served for a special
occaision.  Lau lau is a food made up of taro leaves and some type of meat (lau lau is eaten at luau, so the confusion is frequent).  A lua is a bathroom.

kahuna (ka-hoo-na) and kupuna (koo-poo-na)

    A kahuna is a priest or a skilled practitioner.  A kupuna is an elderly person.  Though they may be connected in many cases, there are also young kahuna, so it is important to know the difference. 


Mauka (mao-ka)

Mauka means towards the mountains, or uphill. Locals say "up mauka" to indicate areas that are well inlaid and at high altitudes.

Makai (mock-eye)

Makai means toward the ocean, or downhill. Makai is used more as an adjective, like "take the makai turn" or "on the makai side of the road".

Ahupua'a (ah-who-poo-ah-ah)

  A traditional district or land division that runs from the mountaintop to the shoreline.  When looking on a map or asking directions, make sure to know whether you need to go the the mauka or makai part of a district. 

Kapu (ka-poo)

The Kapu system was a set of political/thelogical laws deriving from Ancient Hawaiian society. Nowadays, it is used to indicate a restriction in entry to an area.

Holoholo (hoe-low-hoe-low)

Holoholo means on the move (traveling). Locals use this to describe being out and about on pleasure trips.

Ahuena He'iau
Ahuena He'iau



    I've repeated this word in this section because it is commonly used in lieu of an actual place.  For example, locals will say "I'm just going holoholo" to indicate no real planned destination; or, to say they are in transit to a specific place. 


    A lua is a bathroom specifically with a toilet.  This may refer to a building or a portable toilet, so its better to ask specifically for a structure with a restroom if that's what you're looking for. 


    A luau is a party with food, traditionally to commemorate something.  A baby's first birthday is always cause for a luau, as well as weddings, anniversarys, funerals, and visitors.  Large whole-village luau were held to commemorate the changing of peace/wartime. 

hale (ha-lay)

    A house or small building.  In Kailua-Kona, a popular rental building is called Hale Halawai, which means "the house for gatherings". 

He'iau (hay-ee-ow)

    A He'iau is a temple or shrine.  One of the most well known is the Ahuena He'iau, the temple that Kamehameha himself spent time in on the grounds of the King Kamehameha Hotel. 

A recreation of an ali'i court
A recreation of an ali'i court


Haole (hah-ole)

    This word can be traced back to the arrival of Captain James Cook.  When the Hawaiians glimpsed the caucasians, they were believed to be deceased bodies because their skin was so pale.  The Hawaiians thought that they were "ha 'ole), which translates to "with life breath". 

    Haole has expanded to include any foreigner.  Although used casually, like in the name of the "Haole Surf" company, haole can be very derogatory if used inappropriately.  It is often used by locals to negatively describe someone, like "they're such a haole" or "that was so haole". 

Kahuna (ka-hoo-na)

    A kahuna is a priest or skilled practitioner.  In Ancient Hawaiian society, only people high up in the Caste system could become Kahuna, so it was a high position in society.  Priests, canoe builders, bird catchers, and navigators could all be considered kahuna. 

Kupuna (koo-poo-na)

    Kupuna are the elders in Hawaiian culture.  This refers to all elders in your community, not just directly related ones.  To be specific, you must say "my kupuna".  Locals say "papa" and "tutu" for grandfather and grandmother. 

Ali'i (ah-lee-ee)

    The Ali'i were the Hawaiian royals.  Since Hawai'i had no monarchy before Kamehameha the First, there is no real specific word for King, queen, prince or princess.  Instead, adjectives were added to the word ali'i to make the designation. 

Kama'aina (ka-ma-eye-na)

    This refers to people who are native to the Islands.  Many businesses offer "Kama'aina" rates.  This refers to a special rate or discount available to local residents.  In many cases, you must show some proff of residence or ID to get this discount. 

Keiki (cay-key)

    Keiki refers to a child or multiple children, it can be used in singular or plural "she is my keiki" or "they are my keiki". 


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    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Actually, "ha'ole" means without or absence of breath, as in immortal. The Hawaiians thought they were gods, especially since they arrived during Makahiki.

    • profile image

      eric l 

      9 years ago

      Does Ohana Makai make sense as interpreted to mean family that's heading to beach?

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      Thank you for the Hawaiian pet name suggestions. We love Hawaii and have given our cats Hawaiian names. We just took in a stray kitten and found his name in your listing. He is an orange tabby and we named him Kiani. He definitely is frisky!!

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      hey author please remove my first comment..thanks a lot!

    • profile image

      Fred Long 

      11 years ago

      I just remembered, many months ago I borrowed your BK trash can picture for my website. I hope you don't mind. I PhotoShopped everything out of the picture except the trash can.

    • profile image

      Fred Long 

      11 years ago

      Using an apostrophe is acceptable in lieu of an ‘okina, especially since the apostrophes you use appears to be a straight, up and down apostrophe, but I really hate when people use the grave accent (`) because of its orientation. It is tilting the wrong way, a straight line ‘ should have the roughly the same orientation as a forward slash or a fraction slash (/)

    • profile image

      Fred Long 

      11 years ago

      Wow! It worked! I'm akamai! Both the character entities and the Hawaiian keyboard seemed to work after I initially posted my first comment, but after going back to the "home page", only the character entities displayed correctly, but the typed kahakō displayed as question marks. You can see a list of the character entities at Hey Keliko, I would use the kahako since it appears to work. I am going to check this page to see if you reply to my comments.

      PS- Here is the ‘okina (‘).

    • profile image

      Fred Long 

      11 years ago

      ā Ā ē Ē ī Ī ō Ō ū Ū

      The above is a little experiment. I wanted to see if the kahako (kahakō) would appear, but I think maybe they won't since they say "no HTML is allowed in comments and the "thinks" above are "Character Entities allowed in HTML".

      Below is another experiment: I typed the kahako (kahak?) using my Hawaiian keyboard layout. ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? - Fred Long

    • profile image


      11 years ago


    • Keliko808 profile imageAUTHOR


      11 years ago from Hawaii

      The special characters didn't show up....

      Kana ku'uipo

      nani koki

      keu a ka u'i

      are the closest. The special characters are a solid line over the vowels showing a stress on the letter, denoting a different accent.

    • profile image


      11 years ago

      how would you translate something like:

      "his beautiful baby" referring to a man's girlfriend or lover and not his child

    • Keliko808 profile imageAUTHOR


      11 years ago from Hawaii

      This one requires some explanation. The season of Summer was known to the Hawaiians by the solstices (they were very aware of astronomical occurrences), but the word for it is a general term referring to the time between the solstice and the Makahiki. So, it's not the typical three month period as it is in the Mainland. The word for the season would be Kauwela, (sometimes written as Kau wela, both are correct).

      Technically, there isn't a word in the Hawaiian language that is equivalent to tribe if you go by the anthropological definition. In Hawaiian culture, each island had a high chief who had minor ali'i beneath him for the ahupua'a, but the people of each ahupua'a and island didn't identify themselves as separate groups racially, as a tribe does. There was more of a focus on social class rather than tribal identity. (This is one of the big differences between Native American and Native Hawaiian culture.)

      Anyhow, the closest terminology would be the words for clan. The word 'Alaea (ah-lah-eh-ah) refers to intermarrying clans that are specifically in Hawaii. The word Naki (Nah-key) refers to intermarrying clans outside of Hawaii (eg, Maori ).

      In short, "'Alaea Kauwela" would be how to say it, meaning "Clan of summer".

    • profile image


      11 years ago

      how can i say "summer tribe" in hawaiian?

    • Keliko808 profile imageAUTHOR


      11 years ago from Hawaii

      If you have any questions/comments about these words, or suggestions on anything I may be missing or need to clarify, please comment on the article.


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