Talking Story

In Hawaii, teachers never ask children to write their full names. There are never enough lines on the paper or time in the day. The reasons for this go back to naming traditions and an unusual law once on Hawaii’s books.

Wanting Hawaii to be more like the west, in 1860 King Kamehameha IV signed the Act to Regulate Names. From 1860 to 1967, all people born in Hawaii were required by law to have a family surname and an English first name, which explains why Robert, William, Mary, and Sarah started popping up in Kamakawiwaole, Asao, and Chung family trees in the nineteenth century.

Because of the naming law it became common in Hawaii’s mixed plate melting pot to give kids a middle name from each branch of the family tree. At a christening the kahu wouldn’t even blink at pronouncing an infant Joseph Makanani Atsushi Manchu Pacheco, except maybe to ask the parents if Makanani was little Joe’s entire Hawaiian name.

Most likely it wasn’t. On birth certificates, parents often list just part of a Hawaiian name, although this trend is changing. For example, my son’s middle name is list as Kalani on his birth certificate, but his full Hawaiian name is Ka Ikaika Mai O Ka Lani Wai. Despite its appearance, in comparison with the Hawaiian names my classmates have given their kids, it’s really only average in length.

As a language, Hawaiian is highly poetic and idiosyncratic. What’s translated literally is frequently not the whole story. Given the ancient Hawaiians’ love of puns and riddles, it’s not surprising that most Hawaiian names have a simple overt translation like “beautiful flower” along with a host of hidden and layered meanings. Because of this, the general rule of thumb for Hawaiian names is that the true meaning of a name is whatever the giver or owner say it is, regardless of grammar or literal translation.

In ancient Hawaii, names were precious and powerful, and true birth names were not shared casually. Families called children the equivalent of Stinky, Worthless, Ugly, or Wretched (and worse) to make them unappealing to evil spirits and others who might snatch a prized child. As Hawaiian faded from common daily use, these names lost their meaning and became…well, names. Sometimes these kinds of family nicknames were the only ones recorded or remembered, raising eyebrows when modern genealogists start translating.

Throughout their lives Hawaiians changed their names to commemorate deeds, abilities, or desires and were frequently called different names by family members, close friends, and co-workers. I can imagine the hair-pulling frustration of his majesty’s census keeper as he tried to maintain records in an era where there were no surnames and people changed names on a whim.

Ironically, the English first name/family surname only standardized things on paper. With so many Georges, Johns, and Ruths running around, kids were often called by a nickname or middle name, which made the first day of a new school year particularly fun when you discovered Kawika was really Aloysius or Bartholomew.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Sign up for

Talking Story Newsletter

and receive free Lauele Universe bonus material and tips from the Lehua Writing Academy.

Click here to go to
The Niuhi Shark Website.

Get the Books

Amazon
Barnes & Noble

When you’re allergic to water,
growing up in Hawaii
isn’t always paradise.

With Niuhi sharks,
even out of the water,
you’re not safe.

Everything you thought you knew
about Zader is a  lie.