Glossary of Common Hawaiian Words

When you visit the islands, it’s helpful to know the meanings of some of the more common Hawaiian words. Although only a few people speak Hawaiian, many Hawaiian words and pidgin (Hawaiian slang) are used in everyday speech by just about everyone in Hawaii. In the 60s, a law was passed making it mandatory for any new streets names to be in Hawaiian– so be prepared to encounter some tongue-twisters when you ask for directions.

There are only 13 letters in the Hawaiian alphabet: A, E, H, I K, L, M, N, O, P, U and W. And 18 sounds a, e, i, o, u, ä, ë, ï, ö, ü, h, k, l, m, n, p, w, and w with a v sound. The ‘okina (‘) is a glottal stop like the sound between the ohs in “oh-oh” and is also a consonant. In order to clarify pronunciation, you will often see the glottal stop ( ‘ ) or ‘okina and macron used on words such as Hawai’i.

Here’s a short and handy glossary of some of the words you’re likely to come across on your trip to Hawaii.

At a minimum, you should know the meaning of mahalo, pau, mauka, makai, kane and waihine if you don’t want to look like a malihini.


‘aina land, earth
a’a sharp lava
ali’i Hawaiian royalty
akamai smart, intelligent
aloha greeting used to say hello or goodbye. Aloha can also mean love.


halau hula troupe
hale house or home
hana work, bay
haole foreigner, Caucasian
hapa portion or part, mix of races, such as hapa-haole
hau`oli happy
heiau ancient Hawaiian religious temple on a raised base of lava rocks
hoku star
holoholo to walk or travel for fun
honu turtle
ho`okipa hospitality
hu hu angry, agitated
hui group or organization
hula Hawaiian form of communication using dance
huli turn
Humuhumunukunukuapua’a our State Fish, the Hawaiian triggerfish


imu underground pit oven used for cooking luau


kahiko traditional, old, ancient
kahuna Hawaiian priest
kai ocean, salt water
kala dollar, money
kama`aina native-Hawaiian or long-time resident
kanaka man, human
kane man
kapu forbidden, sacred
keiki child or children
kupuna respected elder
kupunakane grandfather
kupunawahine grandmother
kau kau food
kui to string a lei
kolohe rascal
ku`uipo sweetheart


lanai porch, veranda
lani heavenly
laulau meat or fish wrapped in taro leaves and steamed in a ti leaf packet
lei garland of flowers, leaves, nuts, or shells
limu seaweed
lolo crazy
lua bathroom or toilet
luau feast


mahalo thank you
mahimahi dolphin fish
maika`i good
makahiki ancient Hawaiian celebration held annually with sports and religious festivities
makai towards the ocean
malihini newcomer, visitor
mauka inland, towards the mountains
mauna mountain
mele song, sing
menehune mythical small people who are rumored to have inhabited the Hawaiian islands before Polynesians
mu’umu’u long and loose fitting dress

N & O

nai’a dolphin (the mammal)
nani beautiful, enjoyable
nene endangered Hawaii native goose
niu coconut
`ono delicious
`opala trash


pahoehoe smooth lava
pali cliff
paniolo cowboy
pau done, completed
poi pounded taro root
puka hole
pulehu cook over hot coals
pupu appetizer, snack
pupule crazy

U & W

ukulele stringed instrument, small guitar
wahine woman
wai fresh water
wikiwiki quick, fast

If you want to Learn More

   Hawaiian Dictionary