Twenty Words Every Hawaii Visitor Should Know | Frommer's (2023)

Twenty Words Every Hawaii Visitor Should Know | Frommer's (1)

Kristin Mills

By Marcia and Rick Carol

Welcome to Hawaii, the linguistically rich and confusing Islands with not one but two official languages -- Hawaiian and English -- where the 12-letter alphabet has 7 consonants and 5 vowels, and everybody speaks a little pidgin. You probably can get by with a now-and-then "aloha" and a mumbled "mahalo," but to understand what's really going on in Hawaii, you need to know a few basic words like da kine, howzit, and mo bettah.

Banned by New England missionaries, who crudely translated into English what they thought they heard, the native tongue survived underground to carry a nation's culture down through generations in warrior chants, hula lyrics, and talk story. And then there is pidgin, the local patois originated by Chinese immigrants to do business with an easy-to-understand lingo. The root word of "pidgin" is, in fact, "business." A caveat: Before you go to Hawaii and put your foot in your mouth, it's probably a good idea to clip and save this lexicon for future review. Or, as any local might put it: Good t'ing, brush up on da kine, brah, so no make A. Here are 20 words, common in everyday Hawaiian usage, that you should know.

Twenty Words Every Hawaii Visitor Should Know | Frommer's (2)

Carla Jalbert

"Kokua"

1. kokua (ko-coo-ah) verb, noun: Help, as in help, assist, (please kokua), or contribute (kokua luau), a gentle reminder. "Your kokua is appreciated."

Twenty Words Every Hawaii Visitor Should Know | Frommer's (3)

Carla Jalbert

"Pau"

2. pau (pow) noun: All gone, no more, time's up. Used every Friday (when you go pau hana), finish work, when you finish kaukau ("All pau"), when your car or other mechanical object breaks down ("Eh, dis buggah pau"). Not to be confused with make (mah-kay), which means dead, a permanent form of pau.

Twenty Words Every Hawaii Visitor Should Know | Frommer's (4)

Ryan Siphers

"Malihini"

3. malihini (mah-ly-hee-nee) noun: Non-derisive old Hawaiian word, meaning the opposite of kamaaina, or local. If first time come Hawaii, that's you, brah: a stranger, tourist, someone who wears socks and shoes instead of rubbah slippahs and eats rice with a fork, not chopsticks. You remain a malihini until you use "used to be" landmarks as directional aids.

Twenty Words Every Hawaii Visitor Should Know | Frommer's (5)

Carla Jalbert

"Mo Bettah"

4. mo bettah (mow bedder) adjective: A contemporary pidgin self-descriptive term meaning excellent, outstanding, the best. Often used for comparison of ideas, objects, or places, as in "Dis beach mo bettah." Sometimes spelled "moah bettah."

Twenty Words Every Hawaii Visitor Should Know | Frommer's (6)

Carla Jalbert

"No Ka Oi"

5. no ka oi (nok caw oy) Hawaiian phrase, a sequence of words that serves as an appositive, can only follow nouns as in "Maui no ka oi" (Maui is the best), a superlative expression, bragging rights, the best, similar to mo bettah.

Twenty Words Every Hawaii Visitor Should Know | Frommer's (7)

Carla Jalbert

"Hana Hou"

6. hana hou (hah-nah ho) interjection: Hawaiian expression of joy, a cry for more, the local equivalent of "encore." Most often heard at music concerts after Auntie Genoa Keawe sings.

Twenty Words Every Hawaii Visitor Should Know | Frommer's (8)

Kristin Mills

"To Da Max"

7. to da max (to dah macks) interjection: Pidgin expression of boundless enthusiasm, meaning no limits, to the moon, give it your all, knock yourself out. Also, the partial title of a popular book, Pidgin to da Max by Douglas Simonson, Ken Sakata, and Pat Sasaki.

Twenty Words Every Hawaii Visitor Should Know | Frommer's (9)

Kristin Mills

"Akamai"

8. akamai (ah-kah-my) noun, adjective: Smart, clever, locally correct in thought, common sense as opposed to intelligence, or school smarts. "Many are smart but few are akamai."

Twenty Words Every Hawaii Visitor Should Know | Frommer's (10)

Kristin Mills

"Chance 'Em"

9. chance 'em (chants em) verb: Take a chance, go for it, try. Also a rally cry. Often heard in Las Vegas at blackjack tables and in Aloha Stadium late in the fourth quarter when the Warriors are behind. "Fourth and inches on the five. Coach June Jones says, 'Chance 'em.'"

Twenty Words Every Hawaii Visitor Should Know | Frommer's (11)

Carla Jalbert

"Chicken Skin"

10. chicken skin (chee-kin skeen) noun: Descriptive pidgin term, the local version of goose bumps, for a frisson or shiver of excitement. Also the title of best-selling local spooky book by favorite author. "Oh, dat spooky kine stuff gives me chicken skin."

Twenty Words Every Hawaii Visitor Should Know | Frommer's (12)

Agustin Tabares

"Laters"

11. laters (lay-derz) noun: Salutatory remark, often substituted for "goodbye," pidgin for see you later, sayonara, adios, after while crocodile.

Twenty Words Every Hawaii Visitor Should Know | Frommer's (13)

Kristin Mills

"Howzit"

12. howzit? (house it) interjection: A greeting, always a question, friendly contraction of "How is it?" The inquiry is directed at your state of mind at the time. The preferred response is, "It's good, brah!" Or maybe, "I'm feeling junk" (pidgin for "poorly").

Twenty Words Every Hawaii Visitor Should Know | Frommer's (14)

Ryan Siphers

"Shaka Brah"

13. shaka brah (shah-kah brah) interjection, noun: A contemporary pidgin phrase similar to "hang loose," used as a casual form of agreement that everything is cool. The first word, shaka, refers to a hand signal made with thumb and pinkie extended, index, middle, and ring fingers closed, and a brisk horizontal flip of the wrist. This public sign that all is well often follows the phrase "life is good, brah," and is seen nightly on local TV news sign-off. The second word, brah, is a truncation of brother.

Twenty Words Every Hawaii Visitor Should Know | Frommer's (15)

Carla Jalbert

"Holoholo"

14. holoholo (hoe-low-hoe-low) verb: An old Hawaiian word meaning to go out for pleasure on foot or in a car or boat, a stroll to check things out, with emphasis on going out for fun. Not to be confused with similar sounding halohalo (hah-low-hah-low), the classic Philippine dessert made with ice cream and chopped fruit.

Twenty Words Every Hawaii Visitor Should Know | Frommer's (16)

Carla Jalbert

"Wikiwiki"

15. wikiwiki (wee-key-wee-key) adjective, noun: An old Hawaiian word and the name of the Honolulu International Airport shuttle bus, originally meaning to go fast, move rapidly, hurry (a concept missing on the islands of Molokai and Lanai). Not to be confused with hele (hell-lay), which means to go, or let's go, as in "Hele on."

Twenty Words Every Hawaii Visitor Should Know | Frommer's (17)

Carla Jalbert

"Mauka/Makai"

16. mauka/makai (mao-cah/mah-kigh) noun: Two of the four key directions on Oahu, mauka and makai are used on all Hawaiian Islands. Mauka means inland or toward the mountain, and makai means toward the ocean. Other Oahu directions are Ewa (eh-vah) and Diamond Head (die-mohn hed), meaning toward the Ewa plain or Waikiki's famous crater, known in Hawaiian as Leahi (lay-ah-hee) or tuna brow. On Maui, Upcountry same t'ing mauka, brah.

Twenty Words Every Hawaii Visitor Should Know | Frommer's (18)

Kristin Mills

"Kapu"

17. kapu (kah-poo) noun: An old Hawaiian word meaning taboo, off limits, no trespassing, keep out, forbidden, sacred. Often seen on signs in high-crime areas, danger spots, and geothermal plants.

Twenty Words Every Hawaii Visitor Should Know | Frommer's (19)

Carla Jalbert

"Hapa-Haole"

18. hapa-haole (hah-pa-howl-ee) noun, adjective: If you're not kanaka (kah-nah-kah), that's you: literally a person with no breath. Ha is breathe, ole is nothing. Haole is what early Hawaiians called the first European visitors, who looked pale as death, or breathless. Hapa is Hawaiian for half, not to be confused with hapai (hah-pie), meaning one and a half, or pregnant. Hapa-haole is half white. When used derogatorily, haole is generally prefaced by adjectives like "stupid" or "dumb."

Twenty Words Every Hawaii Visitor Should Know | Frommer's (20)

Ryan Siphers

"Da Kine"

19. da kine (dah khine) adjective, interjection: Pidgin slang literally meaning "the kind," implying something perfectly understood but not exactly defined. A one-size-fits-all generic expression used when two or more people know what they are talking about but nobody can think of the right word, as in "Cannot explain, you know, da kine."

Twenty Words Every Hawaii Visitor Should Know | Frommer's (21)

Carla Jalbert

"Li'Dat"

20. li'dat (lye daht) adverb: Existential pidgin phrase, from "like that." Agreement or confirmation that an idea, concept, or statement is what it is. Similar to English "uh-huh" and Japanese honto des.

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