What does Hawai'i mean?

October 14, 2019 | Surfing
Hawai'i: the origin of the word is still up for debate | Photo: Shutterstock

Where does Hawai'i get its name from? Who coined the term Hawaii? The answer is unclear, but there are a few valid theories.

Some might know that Hawaii has several nicknames. The official popular name is "The Aloha State."

But the famous Hawaiian islands are also known as "The Pineapple State," "The Paradise of the Pacific," and "The Youngest State."

The Hawaiian chain is comprised of 137 islands, islets, atolls, and reefs. However, it is generally known for its eight main islands called "Hawaiian Windward Islands."

They are Hawai'i (The Big Island), Maui (The Valley Isle), O'ahu (The Gathering Place), Kaua'i (The Garden Isle), Moloka'i (The Friendly Isle), Lana'i (The Pineapple Isle), Ni'ihau (The Forbidden Isle), and Kaho'olawe (The Target Isle).

The Etymological Theories

The first "haole" to visit the Pacific archipelago was the famous British explorer, Captain James Cook.

When on January 18, 1778, his fleet reached the islands, Cook named them "Sandwich Islands" in honor of John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, and First Lord of the British Admiralty.

Historians have confirmed that the name Sandwich Islands was used to identify the archipelago until between 1820 and the 1840s.

After that, the word Hawai'i - or in a simplified Western version, Hawaii - took over, and the territory changed its official name.

Hawaii: the most isolated population center in the world | Photo: Shutterstock

There are several interesting theories on how the word evolved through time.

One theory has it that the term derives from a combination of the expressions "Hawa" (homeland) and "ii" (small and raging).

The word Hawai'i is also similar to the Proto-Polynesian words Savai'i (Samoan), 'Avaiki (Cook Islands), Hawaiki (Māori), and Havai'i (Tahitian), which might also help explain its origin.

Some etymologists and historians firmly believe that the word Hawaii has no literal meaning and could be an evolution of the first written version.

When James Cook reached the Pacific islands and asked the natives, "where do you live?" he got the answer and wrote it down as "Owhyhee" or "Owhyee."

These expressions were later used by up and coming explorers; the name stuck, and the word evolved into what we have today.

You can also deconstruct the word Hawai'i into three different local words: ha (meaning breath, or breath of life), wai (meaning water or life force), and 'i (meaning supreme).

Finally, the other theory is that the name Hawaii comes from the legend of Hawai'iloa, the expert fisherman and navigator who settled the Big Island.

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