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A Hawaiian Slang Primer (or How I learned to Speak Like a Local)

The Jarvis Bunch: Hawaii Bound.

Sometimes life really does imitate art, especially if you entertain my loose (and one that will date me) definition of art which allows it to encompass the old Brady Bunch show.   So, just like the epic, back-in-the-day, 3-part “Hawaii Bound” episodes in which Mike Brady (the dad) travelled to Hawaii for a business trip to check on a construction project and got to take his whole family along, my “Mike” (who actually prefers the more pedestrian Paul) also has an upcoming business trip to Hawaii to check on a construction project and intends to take our family along too.  Let’s just hope the similarities end there as I’d hate for one of us to unearth an ancient bad luck tiki necklace, the way Bobby Brady (the youngest son) did in the aforementioned trilogy, and jinx our trip the way it did theirs!   

Full disclosure though, we actually lived in Hawaii for 3 years early in our marriage, pre-kids, when Paul was a junior Army officer (since retired and on his second career which thankfully now offers business trips to desirable places, not just to Afghanistan and Iraq) so we kind of know what to expect from the islands, at least this time around.  Back then, I was in marketing/events planning for a large corporation which afforded me an insider’s view and a comprehensive introduction to the rich culture and diversity of the beautiful state and also helped me form lasting friendships with many of my wonderful co-workers who were all locals who graciously took me under their wings and indoctrinated me to the authentic Hawaii not always accessible to tourists.  But rest assured, if it weren’t for their generous tutelage, I would have remained your typical “haole” (pronounced how-lee; basically describes a tourist/foreigner and is also a term for a Caucasian that either can or can’t be derogatory or demeaning dependent on the situation).  One particular memory I look back on and laugh about now is that I used to think the word “mahalo” meant trash since I often saw it imprinted on trash can flaps.  Only later did I find out it really meant thank you and that trash was actually “opala” (pronounced oh-paw-lah).

English is the primary spoken language in Hawaii but the state is a cultural melting pot with strong Polynesian, Asian, Portugese, Phillipino, Samoan, and other influences that are reflected in the multitude of words, foods and customs that abound.  Many long-term residents, or “kamaainas” (pronounced kaw-mah-eye-nahs) are “hapa” (pronounced hah-pah; racially mixed).  At times, it is hard to believe that Hawaii is actually part of the United States. But note to haoles:  in order not to offend, be sure to state that you are returning to the “mainland” after your visit and not to the “states”. 

Hawaii has plenty of words (mahalo, for example!) unique unto itself that are good to know in preparation for a visit.  Many locals also use what is called “Hawaiian pidgin’” or “pidgin’ English” which adds an array of colorful, casual slang to the vernacular too.  I was reminded of all of this double talk while coordinating link-ups with several of my old friends in advance of our arrival to Hawaii.  During one of these recent email coordinations, my friend Cathy suggested meeting at a restaurant in the Ala Moana Shopping Center, which she described to me as being on the “mauka” (pronounced maw-kah; mountain or inland side) side of the mall.  The opposite direction is referred to as “makai” (muh-k”eye”; heading towards the sea).   Other words, via Hawaii-speak, that are commonly heard when inquiring of directions include “ewa” (prounounced ev-ah;  refers to the western city of Ewa on Oahu and also any sort of westward travel), “windward” (refers to the eastern or wet side of an island), and “leeward” (refers to the western or dry side of an island).

Upon landing at the Honolulu International Airport, visitors are immediately confronted with local words.  For instance, the women’s restroom is labeled “wahine” (means woman and is pronounced wah-hee-nee, and displays a picture of a woman in a dress with a “lei” (pronounced lay; floral necklace used to welcome or bid farewell to visitors/guests) around her neck.)  The men’s room is identified by the label “kane” (pronounced kawn) and has a man in an “aloha” (pronounced, a-low-hah; aloha can mean hello, goodbye, love) shirt.  Another hint for haoles…they aren’t called Hawaiian shirts in Hawaii!  And alohawear, which is basically aloha shirts and khakis/slacks for men and a fitted “mu’u-mu’u” (pronounced moo-oo, moo-oo; floral or patterned long or short dress;  and the ones in Hawaii don’t look like the flowy, loose sort (brace yourself for another reference that will definitely date me) Mrs. Roper of “Three’s Company” used to wear) is worn as business attire for any day of the week in most work places.  One last item of note as it pertains to the airport is the “wikiwiki” (pronounced wee-kee, wee-kee;  means speedy) bus which transports crew members around.  It just dawned on me that WikiPedia and WikiLeaks are probably derived from this Hawaiian word too.

Arriving in Hawaii, a very common greeting is “Howzit?” which basically is short for “How’s it going?”  Oftentimes, you’ll hear a “brah” (pronounced, bra, like the undergarment; but refers to brother or friend) at the end, “Howzit brah?”  However, this greeting is best left to the kamaainas.  I don’t recommend getting off your plane and greeting the porter with this unless you want to receive “stink eye” (a dirty look).  Just kidding about the stink eye as Hawaiians as a whole, tend to be very friendly, casual and laid-back and are very tolerant and warm towards visitors, even obnoxious ones who debark from planes and greet them with “Howzit brah?”

The universal hand gesture in Hawaii that tourists can get away with rendering is the “shaka” (pronounced shaw-kah; can mean great, cool, thanks, take it easy).  It is basically the “hang-ten” surf symbol where the pinky and thumb are fully extended while the three middle fingers are held down towards the inner palm.  It is used extensively in Hawaii…when you let someone in ahead of you on the highway, for example, it’s not uncommon to see a shaka flipped out the window. Unlike what we generally observe flipped out of windows on the mainland (!), being on the receiving end of a shaka is a good thing.  It usually is delivered by thrusting your arm out at about a 45 degree angle and flicking your hand firmly downwards once as it stays in the shaka position.  Or you can hold your arm static in a 45 degree angle and rotate your wrist quickly back and forth, while your hand remains in the shaka position.  When I lived in Hawaii, there was a news station that would show up at various work places (to include once at my office) or events and film people doing the shaka symbol and then air the footage at the end of their broadcast.  So, in case anyone cares about my 15 minutes (seconds, really) of fame, it’s true, I have been immortalized on film doing a shaka.

“Ono” (prounounced oh-no;  means delicious) food can be found all over the islands.  No visit is complete without trying a “malasada” (pronounced mah-lah-saw-dah; Portugese donut).  Appetizers are referred to as “pupus” (pronounced pooh-poohs; don’t tell Beavis and Butt-head). “Poi” (rhymes with boy; crushed taro root that resembles a purple paste and has a sweet potato flavor) is popular at luaus.  Even popping into a local McDonalds will expose you to some unique regional menu items…"saimin” (pronounced sigh-min; basically ramen noodles), “taro root” and “haupia” (pronounced how-pee-ah; creamy coconut flavored) pies, McTeri Burgers (teriyaki burgers) and portugese sausage, egg and rice breakfast offerings.  And for reasons I never quite understood, people in Hawaii LOVE Spam.  Here on the mainland when natural disasters are imminent, we stockpile toilet paper, bread, milk, etc.  In Hawaii, which primarily weathers hurricanes and recently a tsunami, all of those things fly off the shelves too but so does Spam as it is a staple in many households.  Lastly, for visitors who want to show off mastery of their Hawaiian language skills, might I recommend placing a dinner order for the state fish---the “humuhumunukunukuapua’a”, pronounced who-moo, who-moo, new-coo, new-coo, ah-pooh, ah-ah!

There are so many other great Hawaiian words and phrases.  Some that are particularly noteworthy and which travelers might encounter include:

                “da kine”- pronounced duh-k”eye”n; catchphrase that can mean anything    

                “talk story”-chat, chew the fat, shoot the breeze

                “ohana” – pronounced oh-hawn-a; means family, friends, relatives

                “lanai”- pronounced luh-n”eye”; porch or balcony

                “lolo”- pronounced low-low; means crazy

                “pakalolo”- pronounced paw-kah, low-low; slang for marijuana

                “pali”- pronounced paw-lee; means cliff

                “tita”- pronounced tee-tah; refers to a tough woman, one that is large and in charge

                “moke”- rhymes with Coke; male version of a tita, refers to a large, tough guy.

                “pau”-pronounced pow; means done, finished.

And on that note, I am pau talking story ohana.  Until my next post, aloha!

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Yvonne Dacey July 16, 2011 at 06:59 PM
great article, bring back fond memories of eating malasadas at Bellows Beach!
Beth Jarvis July 17, 2011 at 05:43 PM
Mahalo Yvonne! The only thing better I can add to that perfect combination would be a mai tai in the other hand.

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