“Aloha.” It’s a word we hear and use every day in the islands. It’s a Hawaiian word so common to the English language that it appears in most English dictionaries. My four-inch thick Webster’s Third New International Dictionary—which I have to dust off before every, infrequent use—gives the word’s definition as: LOVE, AFFECTION, KINDNESS—often used to express greeting or farewell.
And, yet, aloha can mean much more than that.
My Hawaiian Dictionary by Mary Kawena Pukui and Samuel H. Elbert offers a much more elaborate definition: love, affection, compassion, mercy, sympathy, pity, kindness, sentiment, grace, charity; greeting, salutation, regards; sweetheart, lover, loved one; beloved, loving, kind, compassionate, charitable, lovable; to love, be fond of; to show kindness, mercy, pity, charity, affection; to venerate; to remember with affection; to greet, hail. Greetings! Hello! Good-by! Farewell! Alas!
So, exactly what does someone mean when they say, “Aloha?” Are they expressing their love or compassion? Their sympathy or pity? Charity? Kindness?
Last year, I adopted a dog at the Kaua’i Humane Society. Within five minutes of unleashing my mixed-breed hound in the yard, feathers were flying, and the newest member of my family had a chicken in her mouth. I called a dog trainer. He said I had to “proof” (his word, not mine, which I just looked up in my dictionary and discovered can mean, to give a resistant quality to) the dog off the chickens that freely roam on Kaua’i and suggested one technique. My friend and fellow dog owner Pam offered another. Since then, I’ve heard it said that the only thing two dog trainers can agree on is what the third one is doing wrong.
I’ve come to think of the Hawaiian language in a similar manner. Look up “aloha” in one dictionary, and you’ll get one definition; look it up in another dictionary, and you’ll get another definition. It seems there is no one way to define a word in the Hawaiian language. It depends on the word’s usage in a sentence, it depends on the word’s pronunciation, the delivery of the speaker, the words that precede or follow it, and more.
This kind of mystery pervades much of Hawaii. There are various stories about how a mountain behind the town of Kapa’a on Kaua’i got its nickname, “Sleeping Giant.” There are different styles of lomilomi massage. And if you’ve tried it, you may not believe this, but there are many flavors of poi, from sweet to sour.
My name is Kim Steutermann Rogers, and I am the editor of OutriggerHawaii.com. After living in Hawaii for a decade now, I am starting to enjoy living in mystery. Except when it comes to words. I can’t seem to shake years of education. My writing teachers, editors and mentors have all preached a famous line by Mark Twain: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” The quote constantly circles in the back of my mind like a hungry shark. You’d think I spent a year’s worth of days after school writing that line on the blackboard 100 times. And, still, I don’t always get it right. I don’t always find just the right word.
Outside of writing, though, I’ve accepted there doesn’t have to be one, so-called right answer to all my questions in life. Like what kind of breed is my poi dog? What bloodline makes her chase chickens like she’s a lion taking down a zebra on the Serengeti plains?
Living in “hang loose” Hawaii may have something to do with my acceptance to living in the mystery, but it may also have something to do with age. I am firmly planted in middle age. Just so you know what to expect to read on this blog, I am also into nature. I find Laysan albatrosses to be works of art. I spend hours sitting on the beach staring at the critically-endangered Hawaiian monk seal. I will brave the cold, dark waters to scuba dive with manta rays. I like to hike Hawaii's forest trails in search of native birds and never fail to trill at the sight of an 'i'iwi.
For me, part of living in the mystery is turning down roads I’ve often passed and wondered, “Where does that lead?” It’s trying new restaurants and new dishes at favorite restaurants. And it’s trying new activities like volunteering at Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge. Basically, it’s getting out and about more.
And, as a result, I am receiving many gifts. I discovered “Fish Taco Thursday” at the Hanalei Gourmet restaurant on Kaua’i’s north shore. I met a woman at the Kilauea Lighthouse who knows one of my closest friends from when I lived in Missouri. And, walking the beach the other day, I spotted not one but two of the 35-some Hawaiian monk seals who call Kauai--the island on which I live--home.
From 1890 to 1968, a Hawaiian man named Duke Kahanamoku lived. He traveled the globe introducing the sport of surfing and setting Olympic and world records in swimming. He also carried with him this something we call aloha. For the man who was called, the “Ambassador of Aloha,” there was no question as to the definition of the word. Here’s how Duke defined aloha:
In Hawaii we greet friends, loved ones or strangers with “Aloha,” which means with love. Aloha is the key word to the universal spirit of real hospitality, which makes Hawaii renowned as the world’s center of understanding and fellowship.
Try meeting or leaving people with Aloha. You’ll be surprised by their reaction. I believe it, and it is my creed. Aloha to you. Duke Paoa Kahanamoku
And, so, I encourage you, too, to get out and about, step out of your comfort zone, live in the mystery, especially when you visit Hawaii. Eat at a non-chain restaurant. Start a conversation with someone you might not ordinarily. Sign up for a surfing lesson. Take Duke’s advice and greet a stranger with aloha.