25 Words You'll Need to Know in Hawaii

Hawaii Student Work Languages
by Hillary Federico May 15, 2015

1. Obviously, Aloha

A hard-to-define catch-all word of good intentions and emotions, you’ll hear aloha everywhere. It’s commonly used as a greeting or parting, but it means so much more than any dictionary definition you’ll find. Literally meaning “the presence of breath,” aloha is also used to denote love, affection and kindness. In Hawaii, people live with aloha, drive with aloha, and surf with aloha, and it’s actually considered to be an unofficial state “law.”

2. Shaka

Generally symbolizing the feeling of solidarity, the shaka is the other two-finger gesture you’ll probably recognize. Drivers will often use it on the roads when you let them merge and, for surfers, it embodies the phrase “hang loose!” To shaka, stick out your thumb and pinky, then wiggle your hand side to side.

3. Mahalo

Even though you’ll see this word on the side of trash bins throughout Hawaii, mahalo doesn’t mean trash or waste. It means thank you.

4. Kōkua

This word is also commonly seen on waste bins and no, it doesn’t mean trash either. Heard most frequently in the phrase, “Mahalo for your kōkua” (thank you for your assistance), kōkua is roughly translated to mean help or support.

5. Mauka and Maka

Mauka means “toward the mountains” while makai means “toward the ocean.” Street names and addresses aren’t hugely popular among locals when they give directions, so make sure to study up on these two terms if you want to get around.

6. Haole (pronounced HOW-lay)

If you’re a white-skinned visitor, you may hear this during conversation. A controversial word originally used to describe anything foreign (it literally translates to “without breath”), it can be descriptive, genial, or insulting depending upon the context.

7. Honu

This is the word used to denote green sea turtles, an important symbol of Hawaii. Though these animals are on the upswing, they are still considered endangered and are protected by law.

8. Ono (pronounced OH-no)

This word is exactly the opposite of how it sounds to English-speakers. Commonly used alongside the word “grinds,” ono is an adjective that means delicious or delightful. It is also used to describe a much sought after white, flaky ocean fish found on many seafood menus.

9. Da kine

Also known as a whatchamacallit. Simply put, it’s an amazingly vague catch-all you can use when you don’t actually have the words.

10. Kama’aina

Literally meaning “child of the land,” this word is used to describe any long-term Hawaiian resident. When visiting the islands, you’ll probably see signs for Kamaʻaina discounts at hotels and tourist destinations, which only locals can take advantage of.

11. Pau (pronounced pow)

When you’re at a Hawaiian restaurant, the waiter may ask you if you’re “pau.” It’s not an insult, he’s simply asking if you’re finished.

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12. Wahine and Kāne

For “women” and “men.”

13. E komo mai

Okay, so this isn’t exactly a word, but it’s important to know nonetheless. As a tourist this is a phrase you’ll definitely encounter while in Hawaii, perhaps even before you board the plane. Generally on road signs and glossy brochures, e komo mai means “welcome.”

14. Hālau

A Hawaiian word meaning a school, academy or group.

15. Manō

If you’re planning on enjoying some beach time, you should most definitely file this word away in your brain — it means “shark.” Most common are the harmless white tip reef sharks, but make sure to have your wits about you when surfing or swimming as great whites and tiger sharks are known to frequent some areas.

16. Pali

Cliff, as in don’t drive off that pali!

17. Keiki


18. ‘Ae and ‘A’ole

Yes and no

19. Poke (pronounced POKE – eh)

If you’re a raw fish lover, this dish is for you. Marinated in onion and garlic, these meaty cubes of raw seafood (typically ahi tuna) are ono ono. When it’s served over white rice, the dish is called a pokebowl.

20. Pupu


21. Shave ice

A magical marriage of finely shaved ice, sweet fruit syrups, sweetened condensed milk, ice cream and, sometimes, azuki beans, this is a must-try when visiting Hawaii. Oh, and when you order, make sure not to say “shaved ice”. That’s a big no-no.

22. Malasada

A holeless Portuguese donut, aka heavenly balls of dough coated in sugar.

23. Kalo

A plant with edible corm and leaves that is commonly used to make poi. This plant is also commonly referred to as taro.

24. Poi

A staple Hawaiian starch made of steamed, mashed taro (kalo) that is pounded into a glutinous paste. Purplish in color and kind of sour tasting, it can be found at all authentic Luaus.

25. Huli huli

Soon to be your favorite meal, rotisserie-cooked chicken with island-style barbeque sauce.

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