Twenty Words Every Hawaii Visitor Should Know

Each winter surfers are chewed up by 60-foot swells at Kristin Mills
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.
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A former sugar mill town, Paia was once the North Shore's industrial center. Today it's a windsurfing mecca and counterculture enclave. Carla Jalbert
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."

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Check out the Alii Kula Lavender Farm and stay for a luscious lunch made with the farm's lavender products. Carla Jalbert
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.
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Commune with nature on a 2-mile hike through the Keanae Arboretum, which is packed with both native and introduced plants. Ryan Siphers
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.

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Haiwana's Bailey House Museum was home to a missionary and is filled with his period paintings and native arts and crafts. Carla Jalbert
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."

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Hawaii's heiau (temples) were sacred places of worship and sacrifice. Native Hawaiians still consider these places sacred, so if you visit, please don't walk on the heiau or climb on the rocks. Carla Jalbert
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.

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Hawaiian Mai Tai Carla Jalbert
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.

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Hikers can climb 11 miles into a dormant volcano on Maui's Sliding Sands Trail in Haleakala National Park. Kristin Mills
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.

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Just 5 miles south of Lahaina you'll find some of the island's best snorkeling in the calm, clear waters off Olowalu. Kristin Mills
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."



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Makawao's Hui No'eau Visual Arts Center is Maui's premier arts collective. It's also proof that this is no longer a sleepy cowboy town. Kristin Mills
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.'"

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Makena Kayak Tours specialize in teaching first-timers and take you off the coastline of Wailea in waters brimming with tropical fish. Carla Jalbert
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."

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Native fruits and flowers are plentiful for purchase along the scenic, winding road to Hana. Agustin Tabares
11. laters (lay-derz) noun: Salutatory remark, often substituted for "goodbye," pidgin for see you later, sayonara, adios, after while crocodile.

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See Haleakala, Makawao, and Wailuku the way Westerners did when Hawaii was first settled--on horseback. Kristin Mills
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").

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Snorkeling off Maui. Ryan Siphers
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.

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Sunbathers can either challenge or simply admire Hookipa Beach's pounding surf, which is perfect for watersports. Carla Jalbert
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.

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Tear through Haleakala's treetops at 10 to 35 miles per hour on a zip-line tour with Skyline Eco-Adventures. Carla Jalbert
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."

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The Maui Tropical Plantation tour gives you an up-close look at how everything from macadamia nuts to bananas are grown and harvested. Carla Jalbert
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.

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The charming and historic Iao Theater in Wailuku plays host to Maui's rich community theater tradition. Kristin Mills
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.

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The declicious inventory of the T. Komoda Store and Bakery in Makawao. Carla Jalbert
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."

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The peninsula that hosts the spectacular Keanae Lookout was created by volcanic lava flows that shaped its craggy coastline. Ryan Siphers
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."

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Windsurfers love the powerful winter breezes and smooth surf at Hookipa Beach. Carla Jalbert
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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