The origin of the word "haole"

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Haole: the word native Hawaiians call foreigners | Photo: Shutterstock

According to historians, the origin of the word "haole" precedes the arrival of Captain James Cook in the Hawaiian archipelago, in 1778.

Although today it is considered mainly a pejorative word, it has not always been like that.

In the past, it had simple descriptive meanings and was even used to identify the children of the European immigrants who arrived in Hawaii in the early 1820s.

The Portuguese were probably the first haoles from the Old Continent to step on Hawaiian soil. The majority left the island of Madeira in search of better lives and ended up raising their families in the islands of the Pacific.

They started off working in the sugar plantations but, slowly and steadily, got to the top of the social hierarchy.

In 1906, Thomas Edison released "Hawaiian Islands," a silent, black-and-white movie that portrays life in Hawaii in the early 20th century, and features hard-working sugarcane laborers.

The negative side of the word "haole" is basically an evolution of the concept of "malihini" - meaning "newcomer" - to the people of Caucasian descent and the Protestant missionaries from mainland America that imposed new cultural values and strict rules in the islands.

Two Theories and One Chant

The precise etymology of the word "haole" has always been confusing and misleading.

Initially, it was thought that "hāʻole" - meaning "no breath" - was a way of identifying foreigners who rarely adopted the Polynesian greeting of inhaling and sharing each other's breath.

There is also a thesis that states that the word "haole" meant to describe a thief, robber, or someone you shouldn't trust.

However, new findings revealed that both theories were incorrect.

In fact, the earliest use of the word "haole" in the Hawaiian language was found in a chant in honor of King Kuali'i of Oahu and precedes European influence on the archipelago.

The author of the pre-17th-century chant describes the legendary and imaginary island of Kahiki as the "island of no people, except for one kind - a foreign kind (he haole)."

Hawaii: in crowded surf breaks you may hear an occasional 'haoles, go home!' | Photo: Shutterstock

"I think that one of the reasons why the missionaries were called 'haole' has to do with historical and mythological references associating the term with those who speak a foreign language," notes Adam Keawe Manalo-Camp, a Native Hawaiian historian, in his blog.

"Native Hawaiians didn't transform the term 'haole' into a negative racial slur. It was actually the descendants of American missionaries who first began to turn the word into a pejorative term because of politics."

Manalo-Camp believes that "the concept of 'race' as we know it today did not exist in the Hawaiian world view 200 years ago."

Haoles, Go Home!

Today, the expression "haole" has a dual application. It is used by Hawaiians to identify a foreigner, but also as slang or racist term shouted to intimidate tourists and foreigners in general.

Even Google's dictionary tells us that the word "haole" is a derogatory term used by native Hawaiians to pinpoint a foreign white person or non-Polynesian individual.

The expression "haoles, go home!" is self-explanatory, and can often be heard in some of Hawaii's most crowded surf breaks where localism imposes its rules.

Take a look at a few interesting and curious facts about Hawaii.

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