On Hawaiian playgrounds and beaches it’s common to hear Moms calling for little Kalani, Pua, or Lei, but usually you’re only hearing part of the story. Kids with Hawaiian names are often called by nicknames formed out of shorten versions of their full Hawaiian names. Most full Hawaiian names are unique to that individual; children are rarely named after someone else, and names are not borrowed from a lineage outside one’s own—at least not without specific permission.
Unlike Western names which tend to be a single or compound word, most Hawaiian names are much longer, combining at least a noun and adjective to convey a complete thought or idea. Phrases and even complete sentences as names are not unheard of, and in modern times when few speak Hawaiian, names are sometimes lifted from Hawaiian translations of the Bible or from well-loved songs and poems.
Traditionally, giving a child a Hawaiian name requires much prayer, reflection, and consultation with elders. Rather than simply choosing a name themselves, it’s not uncommon for parents to receive a name as a gift from a grandparent or other respected family member. Parents who break with protocol and tradition do so at a risk: I’ve had two cousins whose birth certificates had to be changed because an elder later said they were given the wrong Hawaiian name. Everyone tsk-tsk’d that the parents didn’t know what they were doing when they chose Hawaiian middle names based on the idea that they “sounded good” with the first names they’d picked.
Being asked to name a child is an honor that people take very seriously. Birth names are powerful and often express qualities hoped for or seen in a child. Once a name is needed, the entire ‘ohana starts looking for signs and inspiration. True Hawaiian names reveal themselves in many ways.
Inoa po: name in the night; a name received in a dream.
Inoa hoʻailona: name in a sign; a name received in the form of a vision or natural phenomenon
Inoa ‘ulaleo: voiced name; a name heard
Inoa ho’omanao: name that commemorates a person or event
Inoa kupuna: name that is handed down, an ancestral name
Inoa ewe: name that is based on traits or personality
I’m often startled at how aptly a traditionally given Hawaiian birth name fits the recipient, both the literal and figurative translations. I’m not sure if it’s a matter of the name fitting the child or the child adapting to the name, but time after time and in the most unlikely ways, the names fit.
There’s an added plus to having a Hawaiian middle name—no matter where you go outside of Hawaii, you’re guaranteed to have the longest, coolest middle name in any group, even if no one but your family can say it.