It’s not every day you wake up and find out that everything you about the Hawaiian word “aloha” is wrong.
Okay, maybe not everything. Back in 2006, while speaking at Seabury Hall, writer Paul Wood said that “aloha” was, as an idea, far more complex than most of us in the audience understood–and certainly more complex than anything put out by the state’s many salesman and tourism gurus (of which, Wood admitted with great humility, he was one).
Here’s the thing. As things stand today, the word “aloha” is a greeting and a goodbye. It’s what we tell families as they’re getting off the plane, or when the show’s about to begin.
“Aloha!” the host will tell the audience, who will mutter “aloha” back.
“Alo-o-oha!” he will say again in mock disgust, to which the audience will “alo-o-oha!” right back.
And that’s all wrong, wrong, wrong. But don’t take my word for it–Queen Lili‘uokalani is a far better teacher on this matter. In 1910, after returning to Hawaii from a disappointing trip to the mainland, a crowd gathered at the wharf met Lili‘uokalani with a hearty “Alo-o-oha!” Her response, according to the slim, new book Aloha: Traditions of Love and Affection (the latest volume in UH’s Ka Wana Series on Hawaiian philosophy and culture) by University of Hawaii cultural specialist Malcolm Naea Chun, was cold and whithering.
“Never… never say alo-o-oha,” the queen told the crowd. “It is a haole word. Aloha is ours, as is its meaning.”
According to Chun, “aloha” as a mere greeting came about in post-contact times. Before Captain Cook, the Hawaiians used the word “aloha” to express “my love to you,” but even that definition doesn’t convey the word’s personal and profound nature. Pre-contact Hawaiians, Chun wrote, used the word sparingly, and with great meaning and emotion.
This is kind of a big deal. “Aloha” is the first and most discrete package of Hawaiian culture handed to tourists when they arrive, and it’s pretty much guaranteed to be the one thing everyone remembers when they leave. It is, to put it in the vulgar terms of modern advertising, an extremely marketable “brand” that is worth incalculable riches to Hawaii’s visitor industry.
This makes Chun, and myself (and Wood) feel, well, icky.
“[A]loha is special because it upholds, reaffirms, and binds relationships,” Chun wrote. “Aloha should not be taken lightly. It should not be used casually or frivolously.”
It’s good advice, but a bit late, considering that “Aloha” already appears on license plates, a bankrupt airline, restaurants, organic medicinal mushrooms, a credit union, a Honolulu landmark and sports stadium, furniture sales, software, car dealerships, cans of juice, gas stations, a style of men’s shirts and garbage trucks.
Photo: National Archives/Wikimedia Commons