Hawaiian last names are both a language thing and a tradition of the islands. But where do those names come from? What’s the language like?
History of the Hawaiian Language
In 1893, during the reign of Hawaii’s first, last, and only Queen Lili’uokalani, a United States coup illegally took over the Hawaiian monarchy. Why? They were greedy and wanted cheap land and sugar factories. The queen advocated for a free Hawaii up until her death in 1917.
In 1896, a law was passed stating that it was illegal to teach the Hawaiian language in schools and with that, English soon became the state’s official language. It was until 1978 that it became legal to teach the Hawaiian language in schools again, but because people were so used to being ridiculed and punished for it, when it was finally okay, only 1% of the population knew how to speak it.
The Hawaiian language has 13 letters in the alphabet: A, E, I, O, U, H, K, L, M, N, P, W, and the apostrophe (“okina”) is placed between 2 consonants to signify a pause. Today, at the University of Hawaii on the island of O’ahu, there is the College of Hawaiian Language, which is known to be the first college in the United States that was conducted entirely in a native language.
Where did they come from?
Many Hawaiian surnames come from their ancestors and have a specific spiritual meaning. These names, both first and last, are passed down through generations and were often given in dreams to a member of the family.
In the Hawaiian language, names are not gender-specific. Hawaiian last names also didn’t become common until the late 1800s and before then, people would use their father’s first name as a surname.
According to a Hawaiian history page,
“Queen Lili’uokalani was born Lydia Liliu Loloku Walania Kamakaeha—“smarting, tearful, anguish, the painful eye”—in acknowledgment of the revered queen regent, Kinau, who suffered from eye problems. As a child, she was called by her Christian name, Lydia. Then, in 1877, when her brother, King David Kalakaua, designated her as heir apparent to the throne, he modified her name Liliu to the more exalted Liliuokalani—“okalani” meaning “of the heavens,” signifying royal status.”
Names for Babies
When it comes to first names, especially for babies, it was not always given permanently. For example, “night names” appeared through symbols from the gods and if this name wasn’t given to the baby immediately after they were born, they would be more susceptible to illness or death and misfortune.
If a couple had trouble giving birth, they were told to give the baby a repulsive name to make them so undesirable that the harmful spirits would stay away. Some of these names would be “Naaupo” (“dimwitted”) or “Pilau” (“foul-smelling”). This child would be in danger of misfortune until the age of 7 and so those names would be kept until then, and once they reached that age, they were allowed to change their name.
Names and Marriage
When a person gets married in Hawaii, the name change process starts even before the ceremony. To get a marriage license, you’ll need a completed application form (with the desired name) and a driver’s license. If you want to change your social security name after marriage, you’ll have to do it through the Social Security Administration by filling out a form and submitting it along with your marriage certificate, a current driver’s license, and a birth certificate. It’s honestly a pretty complicated process for a number of reasons — one being the name itself.
Back in 2013, a woman named Janie “Lokelani” Keihanaikukauakahihulihe’ekahaunaele had an issue with her full name not being on her driver’s license. She got this long surname after she married her husband with this name (who got the name from his grandfather who got the name from a dream). When she first received the license, it committed her first name and the apostrophe in the last name; this evidently caused issues for her while traveling. Thankfully, a new policy has allowed her to keep her full surname on her ID.
Popular Hawaiian Names
Alana – “Awakening”
Hale – “House”
Hekekia – “Biblical for Hezekiah”
Iona – “Biblical for Jonah”
Iosua – “Biblical for Joshua”
Chile – “The house”
Kahananui – “The great or hard work”
Kahele – “To go”
Kahue – “The gourd”
Kalama – “The torch”
Kalawaiʻa – “The fisher”
Kalili – “The jealousy”
Kalua – “The companion”
Kama – “Child”
Kamaka – “The eye or bud”
Kameāloha – “Beloved one”
Kapule – “Magic”
Kawai – “The water”
Kaʻanāʻanā – “The black magic”
Kaʻaukai – “The seafarer”
Kaʻuhane – “Soul” or “Spirit”
Keahi – “Fire”
Kealoha – “Love”
Keawe – “The strand” or “the twisted string”
Kekoa – “The warrior”
Keliʻi – “The chief” or “nobleman”
Mahelona – Biblical for Mahlon”
Mahiʻai – “Farmer”
Māhoe – “Twin”
ʻAkamu – “Biblical for Adam”
If you’re curious about your Hawaiian name or the ancestry of a Hawaiian family, do some research in the Hawaii State Archives, or if you just want to know more about the history of Hawaii and you just so happen to be in Honolulu, visit the Bishop Museum and see what you can find out about the past.