Ancient Hawaiians loved word play, riddles, and puns. Songs, stories, poems, and even ordinary conversations could be interpreted on many levels—the more, the merrier—resulting in the ultimate inside joke. Fortunately for us, eminent Hawaiiana scholars Mary Kawena Pukui and Samuel Elbert wrote down many once common expressions and their kaona or hidden meanings. Called ‘ōlelo no‘eau, wise poetical sayings, reading through some of their collections is one of the best ways I’ve found to really see and understand the world as ancient Hawaiians did.
Here’s one I read the other day: A la‘a kō kū i ke a‘u literal meaning so, you got stabbed by a swordfish. Just ponder that for a moment. I mean, really, what do you have to do to get stabbed by a swordfish? And how common must this be for everybody to know about it?
Here’s the kaona: you got into trouble. Stabbed by a swordfish? Yeah, that’d spell trouble!
But I don’t think the whole picture develops until you consider this other ‘ōlelo no‘eau about the perils of swordfish: ‘Olo ‘olo aku nō i hope, kū i ke a’u; literally lagging behind, struck by a swordfish. Working hard and not shirking was an cultural expectation; it was the pono or right thing to do. Lagging behind implies not doing what you’re supposed to with the result of getting yourself into the trouble you’re in, the Hawaiian equivalent of Shakespeare’s ‘hoist with his own petard.’
In my imagination I see a lanky kid in old Hawai‘i. He’s come home from the missionaries’ school, kicking dust and pulling at his too-tight, too-hot collar with a note in his pocket from his teacher. His parents discover he hasn’t been turning in his homework and anything even remotely fun like surfing or fishing is pau, over, no way, José. When little Iosepa’s lip starts to quiver, his parents exclaim, “So, you got stabbed by swordfish. Why are you the only one surprised?”
Which begs the question, “Where did that swordfish stab?”