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Top Ten Hawaiian Words for Visitors to Know

Knowing a few key words can increase your enjoyment of time spent on any Hawaiian island can not only enhance your trip but will also impress your family and friends. If you cannot prononce a word or have no clue what it means, as we say locally, no worries! Ask … people are always happy to help; it is generally appreciated that someone is genuinely interested. It is not, however, usually accepted to make fun of the language so don’t TRY to be funny with it.

Though English is still the most commonly used language, Hawaiian words are
often mixed into everyday conversation frequently enough that you’re sure to hear a few while enjoying your time on the islands. There are also certain words that will keep be important to know while exploring.

1 – Aloha (Ah-LOW-hah)

This is common enough that most visitors know that it translates as “hello” and “goodbye” in Hawaiian, but there is a deeper meaning to this common phrase that is synonymous with the Hawaiian islands. The “Aloha Spirit” is quite common throughout the state. The literal meaning of aloha is “the presence of breath” or “the breath of life.”

2 – Mahalo: (Ma-HAH-low)

Mahalo translated means “thank you”. It is not at all uncommon to hear locals finalizing a purchase with a casual, yet courteous “mahalo,” and it’s an easy yet important Hawaiian word to learn when traveling in the islands.

3 – ‘Opala: (Oh-PAH-La)

Unlike “Mahalo,” this is the real word for trash that you won’t find written on trash cans. Instead you’ll likely see the word “Mahalo” as in “thank you for disposing of your trash” with signs reading “mahalo for cleaning your ‘opala”. Neglect to dispose of your `opala at a public park or beach and it’s highly likely you’ll catch some “stink eye” (VERY dirty looks!). NOBODY wants stink eye!

4 – Mauka/Makai: (MOW-ka/Ma-KAI)

Forget everything you know about road numbers and highways when visiting the islands and you’ll find yourself much more relaxed. Mauka (Mountain) and Makai (Ocean) are  heavily used words when giving directions. It also helped me immensely when I first arived on Maui and went on one of my many days of wandering with no particular destination. I could always find the ocean and head makai to get home.

If your destination lies on the inland side of the road, it would be on the mauka of the highway. If you find yourself walking down a road with buildings on each side, and the water is to your left and the mountains are to your right, a storefront that sits on the ocean side of the road is said to be makai of the road. Get it?

5 – Pau: (POW)

Pau is a phrase that is so commonly used, you will probably find youself adopting it. The word literally means “finished,” and it may be used when island waiters will ask “are you all pau with that plate?”

A favorite variation of the word is the phrase “pau hana,” which signifies the end of the workday (or any other task). If someone asks if you want to join them for a pau hana, they usualy want to hang out and enjoy a cold one on the beach or for sunset and a Pau Hana special at any number of establishments for happy hour.

6 – Kapu: (KAH-Poo)

This is probably the MOST important word for vistors to know as it means several things, including “Keep Out”. Heed them when hiking as this is a property owner’s way of letting hikers or trespassers know that continuing further is forbidden. If you happen across a “kapu” sign, simply stay out. Treat these just as you would a “No Tresspassing” sign as that is exactly what they are.

7 – Keiki: (KAY-kee)

Families who are traveling to Hawaii with children will quickly learn this word. Keiki is the general term for “children”. Restaurants often offer keiki menus and activities usually have special prices for the little ones in your party.

8 – Kokua: (Koh-KOO-ah)

Kokuameans “to help” and is frequently coupled with the word “mahalo” to form “mahalo for your kokua.” In English, the phrase would translate as “thank you for your help,” and it often refers to not littering, keeping an area clean or generally complying with any rules or guidelines.

9 – Akamai: (Ah-ka-MY)

Akamai is a word that simply means clever or intelligent so when traveling in Hawaii, if someone uses this word referring to you, you should definitely take it as a compliment!

10 – Ono: (OH-no)

This one may trip you up as it has a couple of meanings. If something is delicious, you would say it is “ono” as in ono grindz (great food). You will also find it on almost every restaurant menu that serves fresh, island fish. It is known as Wahoo on the U.S. Mainland but wherever you try it, it will be ONO for sure!

Now, I know this is a list of the top ten words; however, everyone who visits Hawaii for the first time will try their best to get this one so let’s add it as a bonus. Know what the unofficial State Fish of Hawaii is? By the time you leave, I bet you will! The Humuhumunukunukuapua’a is a beautiful reef Triggerfish you will likely encounter on any snorkleing tour. Pronounced “who-moo-who-moo-nuku-nuku-a-pooh-a-a” and once you learn it, you’ll never forget!


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