Posted in Names

A primer on Hawaiian names

Hawaiian belongs to the Austronesian language family, on the Marquesic sub-branch of the Central Eastern Polynesian group. Along with English, it’s the official language of the 50th and final state to join the U.S.

Like many other native languages which fell under the heel of colonial or more dominant powers, Hawaiian too suffered devastating blows, and came very close to extinction. It was banned in 1896, and children who dared to speak Hawaiian at school were horribly punished.

Thankfully, Hawaiian has begun to recover, thanks to language immersion preschools, radio stations, TV, newspapers, and other initiatives. In 1900, there were 27,000 native speakers, and this number had dwindled to but 1,000 by 1997, representing under 0.1%. In 2011, it had risen to 24,000. Residents of westernmost island Ni’ihau speak Hawaiian almost exclusively.

The four youngest sisters in my Laurel family, along with their husbands and children, move from Atlantic City to Hawaii in 1986. Their destination is a huge surprise planned by Tikva’s husband Giorgio, a future pediatrician specializing in premature infants and children. It’s exactly what they need to start over after a lot of depressing, traumatic events. In Honolulu, they begin their own fashion design company, Four Laurels.


The alphabet developed by American Protestant missionary Elisha Loomis in 1822 had five vowels, twelve consonants, and seven diphthongs. F, G, S, Y, and Z were used for foreign words and names.

In 1826, the alphabet assumed its modern form of five vowels (A, E, I, O, U) and eight consonants (H, K, L, M, N, P, W, and ‘okina). The lattermost is a unicameral consonant (without upper or lowercase forms) marking a phonetic glottal stop. Originally, the alphabet had contained B, R, D, T, and V, but they were dropped due to representing functionally redundant, interchangeable sounds.

Traditional naming customs:

Hawaiians took great care to choose a unique name for each child, with great thought as to the meaning. Some names came from dreams or visions, while others related to something that happened at the time of the birth. Queen Lili’uokalani, Hawaii’s last reigning monarch, was called Lili’u (scorch) Kamaka’eha (the sore eye) when she was growing up, due to her great-aunt Kīnaʻu’s eye ache.

Names had to match social class and family deities. The kauwā (slave) caste had to take simple names after natural objects, while chieftains got to have names starting with Keliʻi (the chief) or ending in -lani (sky).

Many people had several names, both formal and informal, and could change their names to something with a grotesque meaning to try to ward off evil spirits. Visiting Americans were scandalized to learn of names such as Kūkae (excrement), Kapela (the filth), Kama’i (the genitals, the illness), and Pupuka (ugly).


Hawaiians didn’t have surnames until Western missionaries arrived. Christian converts sometimes used their Hawaiian names as surnames, with the new baptismal names taking the place of their old forenames.

In 1860, people were ordered to use their father’s name as a surname. All children born henceforth had to have English names. Any Hawaiian names had to be in the middle. In 1967, this legislation was repealed, though by that point, the Hawaiian language was in a serious state of endangerment.

Sample names:


‘Aka’aka (To laugh)
Akela (Adele for girls; Asher for boys)
Alealani (The sweet voice of the heavens)
Anuenue (Rainbow)

Ha’aheo (Cherished with pride)
Hanalei (Crescent bay; also a Hawaiian form of Henry)
Hau’oli (Happiness)
Hekili (Thunderl also a Hawaiian form of Herman)
Hiapo (Firstborn)
Hi’ilani (Held in the arms of heaven)
Hilina’i (Trust)
Hokule’a (Star of gladness; the Hawaiian name for Arcturus, the brightest star in the Northern Hemisphere, and Hawaii’s zenith star)
Hokuokalani (Star of the heavens)
Ho’onani (Adornment)
Hualani (Heavenly fruit)

Ka’aukai (The seafarer)
Ka’ehu (The sea spray; the reddish hair)
Ka’ena (The heat)
Kahananui (The great work; the hard job)
Kahekili (The thunder)
Kahele (The walk; the moving)
Kahoku (The star)
Kahue (The gourd)
Kahula (The dance)
Kai (Sea)
Kaimana (Ocean power; diamond)
Kainoa (Sea of freedom)
Kaipo (The sweetheart)
Kaiwi (The bone; a symbol of old age and life)
Kalani (The heavens)
Kalua (The second child; the companion)
Kamalani (Heavenly child)
Kapua (The flower; the child)
Kaui (The youthful one)
Kaulana (Famous)
Kawehi (The adornment)
Keahi (The fire)
Keaka (The shodow; the essence)
Keala (The path)
Kealoha (The loved one)
Keanu (The cool breeze)
Keone (The homeland)
Konani (Bright)

La’akea (Clear sacredness)
Lanakila (Victory; triumph)
Laniakea (Immeasurable heaven)
Lehua (Ohia flower)
Lei (Flowers; lei; child)
Leilani (Heavenly flowers; royal child)

Makana (Gift)
Mana (Spirit)
Maui (A mythological trickster who created the Hawaiian islands by making his brothers fish them from the sea)
Moana (Deep sea, ocea, wide expanse of water)
Nahele (Forest)
Nai’a (Dolphin)
Nalani (The heavens; the chiefs)


Apikalia (Abigail)
Elikapeka (Elizabeth)
Haukea (White snow)
Haunani (Beautiful snow)
Hokulani (Heavenly star)
Iolana (To soar)

Kakalina (Katherine)
Kala (Sarah)
Kalea (Joy, happiness)
Kalena (Karen)
Kanani (The beauty)
Kehaulani (Heavenly dew)
Kekepania (Stephanie)
Kiana (Diana)
Kilikina (Christina)
Ku’ulei (My lei)
Ku’ulpo (My sweetheart)

Lani (Sky, heaven, royal, majesty)
Leialoha (Lei of love)
Leimoni (Pearl lei, pearl child)
Leinani (Beautiful lei)

Maile (A native vine used to make leis)
Malia (Maria)
Malie (Calm)
Mele (Song; also used as a Hawaiian form of Mary)
Melika (Melissa)
Momi (Pearl)

Nani (Beauty, glory)
Noelani (Heavenly mist)
Pelika (Covenant; bond)
Pua (Flower; offspring)
Pualani (Heavenly flower; royal offspring)
Puanani (Beautiful flower; beautiful offspring)

U’ilani (Heavenly beauty; royal beauty)
Ululani (Heavenly inspiration)
Wailani (Heavenly water)
Waiola (Water of life; also a Hawaiian form of Viola)
Walonika (Veronica)
Wikolia (Victoria)


Akamu (Adam)
Anakoni (Akoni) (Anthony)
Ekewaka (Edward)
Iakopa (Jakob)
Ikaia (Isaiah)
Ikaika (Strong)
Iokua (Joshua)

Kale (Charles)
Kaleo (The sound; the voice)
Kapena (Captain)
Kapono (The good one)
Kekoa (The warrior)
Keoni (John)
Kimo (James)
Koa (Warrior; koa tree)

Makaio (Matthew)
Maleko (Mark)
Mikala (Michael)
Peni (Benjamin)
Pika (Peter)