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Do the islands’ names mean something special?

Ask the Big Kahuna

“Answering the most common visitor questions”


We have just returned from a wonderful visit to Hawaii and hope to come back soon.

One thing has us confused, though. In literature and from a tour guide, who seemed well informed, we received conflicting information about the names of the islands themselves.

Can you help us with the meanings or origins of the names of the islands?

Ernest Blakemore

Aloha Ernest,

Thanks for sending your intriguing question to the Big Kahuna at

Disagreements about the meaning of the names of the various islands do exist and may have been the source of the confusion you noticed.

Popular understandings about the origins of the islands’ names, some reflected in respected writing, often go against Hawaiian language scholars. Most agree that ‘Maui’ comes from the name of a demi-god and that ‘Lanai’ is ‘day of conquest’ — but the other major islands hold different stories.

Popular etymology tells us that ‘Hawaii’ meant ‘burning Java’ or ‘little Java’; ‘Oahu’ meant ‘gathering place’; and ‘Kauai’, ‘food season’.

According to Place Names of Hawaii by Puki, Elbert, and Mookini, none of these popular meanings can be supported linguistically, and the origins have faded unrecoverably into pre-history. The truth is – we just don’t know!

Whatever they meant at one time in the distant past, the islands of Hawaii mean beautiful locales, great activities, and outstanding hospitality today. In a way, this lack of definitive meaning behind the island names creates a wonderful opportunity for each of us. We can each assign a personal meaning to each island, so that each island holds for us in its name the experience we carry inside us.

Mahalo for your interest in the islands, and come back soon.

Big Kahuna