Friday, December 12, 2008


Here is my Fun Fact for the week.

Ha! What a great Hawaiian word. What could it possibly mean?

How very logical of the Hawaiians. Of course, this expellation of air means a breath, to breathe, even divine breath.

At last night's hula class I pointed out to my classmates that the word ha is hidden in a few other common words, such as aloha. Alo means facing and ha means breath. In the old days, Hawaiians said hello by coming face-to-face with each other -- nose-to-nose, in fact -- and expelling their breath. My first Hawaiian language teacher, Tuti, claimed that it was a very practical greeting: in one moment you'd know if your friend was feeling well or not.

Tuti also explained the origin of the word haole, which is the somewhat derogatory term for non-Hawaiians. She said it originated with the first contact of Hawaiians with European voyagers, such as Captain James Cook. Captain Cook (who ultimately lost his life in Hawai'i) no doubt greeted the native people in a rather stiff and formal British manner. A warm handshake was probably the most intimate he and the other Brits could manage when meeting the chiefs. (Greeting the ladies was quite another matter.)

Ha means breath; ole means without. Thus, haole means "without breath." Originally, the word described people who failed to greet others in the Hawaiian way.

Ha appears in many words. I read that 'ohana, the word for family, means "many breaths," as in a whole bunch of heavy breathers, a clan. I haven't found a good source of Hawaiian etymology, so I can't vouch for that, having come to learn that you can't believe everything you read on the Internet. For example, one Internet source claimed that Hawai'i meant "divine breath, divine water." However, according to my Hawaiian dictionary, the word Hawai'i comes from "Hawa Iki," which was the name of the legendary homeland of the Polynesian people who eventually set out in their sea-faring canoes and settled their new home, Hawai'i.

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