If you look at the list of most popular names in the state of Hawaii, you won’t find them very different from others, with Chloe, Isabella and Madison, Ethan, Noah and Isaiah at the top. It isn’t until you get quite a bit futher down the list that you find names more reflective of the distinctive native nomenclature, such as Kai, Leilani, Malia, Kainoa, and Kalena.
In the past, names have held deep significance in the Hawaiian culture, especially prior to the arrival of English-speaking missionaries in the late 18th century. Before that, the choice of a name involved the whole extended family, and was believed to have been sent by the family’s ancestor god, either via a dream, a spoken message or some other sign, and to ignore it could mean illness or death to the baby. Another old tradition was for several words— of particular significance to the parents– to be joined together into one long name, which would then be shortened into a nickname. Much of this came to an end in 1880, when King Kamehameha IV enacted a law mandating that all citizens follow the standard European system of naming—that is using a Christian name followed by a surname–which didn’t exist before.
There are few families of names as lilting, rhythmic, and romantic as indigenous Hawaiian names. In both sound and meaning, they evoke pleasant images, many of them related to nature—flowers, the forest, sky and water. Part of this flavor derives from the fact that there are only five vowels and seven consonants in the language, making the names rich in vowel sounds, each of which is pronounced as a separate syllable. Many English names have been “Hawaiianized,” to accommodate the missing consonants. (see below to translate your own name to Hawaiian)
Many, if not most, traditional Hawaiian names are used interchangeably for girls and boys, but here are some that are more or less gender specific, with their meanings and/or English equivalents. Note that the accent is always on the next to last syllable.)
AKELINA – noble (form of Adeline)
ALAMEA – ripe, precious
ALANI – orange tree
ALOHI – shining, brilliant
Family names was the subject of a recent nameberry poll, in which you voted overwhelmingly –70%–in favor of using family names for your baby. Where to look for great family names? In your own family records, of course, as well as in nameberry for ideas of historic names that sound appropriate for modern life. Another great idea: you can hunt for original family names through genealogy sources — and build a family tree for your baby in the process.
The largest number of people who took our poll–46%–were comfortable with taking lots of liberties with Grandpa Wilbur or Grandma Enid‘s name to make them more modern-baby friendly. We’re happy to help. The following are some possible updates for those fusty, musty family names.
Wilma –> WILLA
How have YOU modernized a family name for your child? Tell us here!
Our newly-elected President, Barack Obama, has famously called himself “a skinny black kid with a funny name.” He’s the first one to admit how difficult it’s been living with such an unusual moniker. In a video aired during the Democratic National Convention, he said Barry Obama might have been okay, or Barack Smith, but being named Barack Obama made everything doubly difficult. And at the Alfred E. Smith roast, he humorously declared that Barack was Swahili for “That one” and that Steve and not Hussein was his real middle name.
But Barack Obama has obviously triumphed over any challenges presented by his name, symbolic of an American future in which diversity is not only tolerated but celebrated. Many parents have already embraced a baby-naming ethic that champions ethnic names, distinctive names, and genuine if odd family choices. One pro-Obama group even launched a campaign in defense of unusual names.
Barack Obama was named for his African father. Called Barry as a child and young adult, he later reverted to the full, authentic, form of his name. Barack, which means blessing in both Swahili and Arabic, is, when spelled Barak, an Old Testament name meaning lightning–fitting in view of the numbers of parents worldwide who have instantly started using it as a namesake for their babies.
Interestingly, Obama’s older daughter is named Malia, a Hawaiian name that celebrates that part of his heritage. Under President Obama’s lead, the next four years should prove to be livelier and more forward-thinking in terms of baby names along with everything else.