Hawaii This and That

Hawaiian heiau

Here is a list of common words and expressions you might hear when in Hawaii. It's an alphabetical guide to Hawaiian culture, customs and traditions.

Aloha 'Oe

One of the best-known songs in Hawaii is Aloha 'Oe, which was composted by Queen Liliuokalani (1838-1917). The Queen wrote both the lyrics and the melody of the song, which is based on an old folk song from Croatia called "Sidi Mara Na Kamen Studencu." The similarity of the two songs is amazing. Moreover, it is assumed that the Prussian leader of the Royal Hawaiian Band, Henry Berger, also brought an Austrian song with him that's called "Die Träne" (German meaning "The Tear"), which has the same melody as well.

When Queen Liliuokalani saw a young couple embrace and say goodbye to each other, she thought of her own group's imminent parting and composed this song. It was written after Hawaii was officially annexed to the United States in 1898. Today, Aloha 'Oe is often sung when people say farewell.

Ha'aheo e kua ua i na pali
(The rain proudly sweeps by the cliffs)

Ke nihi ae la i kanahele
(And passes softly through the trees)

E uhai ana paha i ka liko
(It seems to seek out the buds)

Pua ahihi lehua o uka
(Of the ahihi lehua flower in the valley)

Aloha 'oe, aloha 'oe
(Farewell to thee, farewell to thee)

E ke onaona noho i ka lipo
(Thou sweet one who dwells in the forest)

One fond embrace, a ho'i ae au

(Now before I go)
Until we meet again


Chants are an essential part of Hawaiian culture. Part celebration, part prayer and part projection of spiritual power, chants throughout history were a way of addressing the gods and of achieving power in all areas of life. They were known to carry word power, mana or spiritual force, which could influence life. Many chants were considered sacred and passed on from one generation to another. Some chants could only be sung by certain individual classes, such as the alii and kahuna or priests and were kapu (forbidden) to anyone else.

Chants were used for several reasons, such as to praise someone, to change the circumstances of someone's life, to pronounce or lift a curse, to mourn, to declare love and many others. It was believed that if a chant was sung incorrectly, it could have devastating consequences. A person could be punished by death in the most extreme case if a mistake in chanting was committed.

Chant means oli in Hawaiian. They are usually sung as unaccompanied solos with only two or three tones. When a chant is sung correctly, little or no air is coming out of the mouth while singing. This way, the chanter can sustain his or her breath through long phrases. Today, chants are sung on a variety of occasions, for example at graduations, as a blessing for a new building or at funerals.

Da Kine

Da kine, pronounced "dah kine" is one of those Hawaiian Pidgin phrases you will hear often in Hawaii. You want to know what it means? Well, it can literally mean anything. Da kine can refer to a person, a situation, an animal, a beach, a song or something else. Let me give you an example. If you hear someone say "give me da kine" and points to, say, the scissors, then that person means "scissors" by saying "da kine."

In some English language dictionaries you may see da kine to be translated as, "the thing," or "that thingie." But the real meaning of da kine is really much broader than just "the thing." And the beauty of da kine is that everybody in Hawaii seems to understand its meaning. Just point to something and say the magic words "da kine" and here we go; everyone knows what you are talking about.


When asking for directions on the island of Oahu, for example, you might easily get confused when a local tells you to "go Diamond Head, pass Ala Moana and then turn mauka," or to "drive Ewa for two miles and then turn makai." When in Hawaii, you can just about forget north, south, east and west. What you'll hear here is mauka (toward the mountains or inland) and makai (toward the ocean). So if you're on Oahu and someone tells you to go Diamond Head, it means to go toward that landmark (which is located at the east of Waikiki). Ewa means toward the direction of Ewa Beach, which is located on the southwest coast of Oahu.


The gecko is an animal commonly seen in Hawaii. It's a small lizard with large eyes and sticky toes. It's about one to two inches long. It is a hospitable creature that likes to live in people's homes. Even if you don't like small critters like these, try not to be scared of the gecko.

The good thing about them is that they eat many times their weight in bugs. So leave them alone and it will eat insects and cockroaches that live in and around your house. Besides, killing a gecko is considered bad luck in Hawaii. For many Hawaiians, the gecko is an aumakua, or family god.


Heiaus are an ancient Hawaiian temple sites. For many Hawaiians, it is a place of great power. They were built with robust lava rock walls surrounding flat grounds that were covered with smooth stones or pebbles. Within the walls, at the center of the heiau, altars, oracle towers and small buildings to hold artifacts were often times constructed.

Heiaus were built for various purposes. The heiau luakini were constructed by the highest chiefs and used for human sacrifice. The heiau hoola were healing temples, and the puuhonua were places of refuge where criminals (for example people who broke a kapu) could find sanctuary.

Today, ruins of heiaus can be found throughout the Hawaiian Islands. If you want to show your respect, do as the locals do and bring a small offering, such as a food or small lava rock wrapped in ti leaf, to leave at the temple site.


Kapu means forbidden or taboo in Hawaiian. In ancient times, the kapu system regulated daily routines and set the rules for relationships within the limits for each sex and class. It provided rules for life and for the structure of society. For example, it was kapu for a commoner to stand in the presence of a chief. Women were not allowed to eat pork, bananas and certain types of fish.

Of course, abuses of kapus happened. The penalty could be severe and death sentences were not unusual, even if the person had unknowingly broken a kapu. In 1819, King Kamehameha II officially abolished the kapu system because he saw that it was a barrier between his people and the apparently better organized and equipped outsiders.


This is the title of the Hawaiian creation chant, which was composed around the mid-1700s for Chief Ka limamao to recite his ancestry and tell myths of the origins of life. The Kumolipo was later translated into English by Queen Liliuokalani and published in 1897.

The 2,000-line chant tells of life and how it originated in the slime and slowly arose from simple life forms, such as the coral polyp and marine invertebrates (worms, shellfish, etc,) to more complex forms, such as insects, birds, mammals and finally humans.

The Kumulipo has gotten attention from historians and scientists because it gives a naturalistic, nonreligious account of the creation of life that is drawn from close observation. It also corresponds roughly with the evolutionary theories of Darwin, which were made more than a century after the Kumulipo's composition.


The menehune are a mischievous race of dwarfs, who, according to legend, lived in the old Hawaii. It is believed that they were wiped out when the first Polynesian settlers arrived in the islands. There are mainly two versions that tell of the legend of the menehune.

According to local lore, the menehune were responsible for the construction of a couple of surprising structures in the ancient Hawaii, including the "menehune ditch" on Kauai. Even though the menehune were displaced when the first settlers arrived, some people up until today believe that the menehune are haunting the islands, carrying out tricks on people.

According to scholarly view, legends like the menehune existed in various other island nations in Polynesia. Scholars say that these legends originated from a common mythology and are reinterpreted in terms of local conditions by the various peoples. In the case of Hawaii, the old legends of mischievous and smart little menehune were interpreted to refer to the lower class people, who were probably called menehune in the time of Hawaiian prehistory.

Today, the term menehune refers to people of the lower class in Tahiti. That's why it is assumed that Tahitian settlers brought the term to Hawaii, where it was it was first used to refer to the lower class, but then transferred to the little dwarfs as a slight to the lower class people. The term for the lower classes was later changed to the present term of maka'ainana, thus leaving the term menehune for the little dwarfs alone. Scholars are certain that no mischievous little dwarfs ever inhabited the Hawaiian Islands.


A paniolo is a Hawaiian cowboy. The word sounds Spanish; that's because it has its origins there. Spanish-Mexican vaqueros, who came to Hawaii in 1832, were the first cattle handlers in the islands. They came here by the request of King Kamehameha III, who wanted them to teach the islanders how to handle cattle.

The paniolos had called themselves Espanol, but islanders simply called them paniolos.

The paniolos enthusiastically taught the people here how to manage a cattle ranch. They adapted to their new lifestyle in the islands and a new island-style cowboy race was born. Their imported culture of cattle ranching mixed with local island traits.

The paniolos' wool ponchos, bandannas, leggings and wide sombreros gave way to jeans, T-shirts, leather jackets and boots. Their cowboy hat is often times decorated with flower or shell leis, a symbol of the successful merging of the original vaqueros into the Hawaiian aloha spirit. Today, Parker Ranch on the Big Island of Hawaii is one of the largest privately-owned ranches in the world and still functions with the Hawaiian paniolo leading it.

Shave Ice

Shave Ice is a delicious island treat, perfect on a hot summer's day. Unlike the snow cone, which is made of ice crushed into little pieces, shave ice is shaved off a block of ice. It has a finer texture than snow cones.

The ice is than topped with fruit-flavored syrups, such as pineapple, strawberry, coconut lemon or lychee. Vanilla and chocolate flavors are also available. At most shops, you can also choose to have vanilla ice cream or sweet-flavored azuki beans on the bottom.

It is not clear when shave ice first appeared in Hawaii. However, it is believed that it was introduced by Japanese sugar plantation workers, who gathered on off days and scraped ice off from blocks of ice. When these plantation workers later left the plantations, some opened shops to sell shave ice to the people.

Slack-Key Guitar

This is a Hawaiian guitar style and its harmonious sound comes from a certain type of guitar tuning called "slack key." While in standard guitar tuning, each string is tuned to a different note, in slack key, the strings are tuned to a chord. When a guitar that's tuned the standard way is strummed without fingering, one can hear an unharmonious sound. In slack key, the strings produce a harmonious sound even without fingering.

It is believed that the slack-key guitar style had its origins when the paniolos, the Hawaiian cowboys who came here from Mexico, tried to play the guitar and didn't understand the arrangement of strings that jar when strummed together. They then invented other tunings by loosening or slackening the strings to produce chords that matched the singer's vocal range.

In the most common slack-key tuning, the G or "taro-patch" tuning, the strings are tuned D G D G B D. The "wahine" tuning consists of the notes D A D F A C, while the A tuning has only two notes - E A E E A E. Besides those, there's an endless variety of other tunings. When playing standard guitar, the player strums chords or picks notes. With slackened strings, however, the player may pluck the melody on the higher strings and accompany it with the tuned base strings. This gives the song great richness of sound.


An ukulele is a Hawaiian guitar and its name means "jumping flea." This four-stringed guitar is much smaller than the standard full-sized guitar and it is usually decorated with Hawaiian ornaments, such as palm trees or flowers.

The ukulele was first introduced to the Hawaiians in the the late 1870s by the Portuguese immigrants from Madeira. Back then it was known as a taro-pitch fiddle. Hawaiians fell in love with this small guitar because it was easy to learn to play it, easy to carry and cheap to buy. Hawaiians got so much used to the ukulele that in the beginning of the 1900s the ukulele had become an essential part of Hawaiian music.

In today's world, Hawaiian musicians use the ukulele a lot in their songs. Also, you can see many happy Hawaiian people on the street or on the beach walking and playing with their ukulele. The sound of the ukulele is very cheerful and it can really touch your soul. If you want to learn more about the ukulele and hear ukulele songs, you should visit the Polynesian Cultural Center and especially the center's Hawaiian village, where artists perform and sing songs with ukuleles and other Hawaiian instruments.

It is fairly easy to learn to play the ukulele. Just get a "teach yourself how to play the ukulele" book at any bookstore in Hawaii, and then stop by at an ABC store or at Hilo Hattie to buy your ukulele for less than $20.