Woman presenting lei
Woman presenting a lei with aloha

Those who have visited Hawaii – and even many who never have – know the Hawaiian word, “Aloha.” Ask them what it means, and you will likely get a bemused, “It means both ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’! Isn’t that funny?” Well, yes… and no. Aloha means so much more than that, and when it’s pigeon-holed into just “hello” and “goodbye,” it’s really a reflection on a limitation of the modern English language, not Hawaiian.

First let’s take a little side-quest. What do the English words “hello” and “goodbye” really mean? In today’s sense, nothing actually. “Goodbye” is just a very short, very old contraction for “God be with you,” but most people don’t even realize that. And “hello” …well, there are many theories, but it likely comes from an Old High German word for “to fetch” – it’s what folks would shout from the banks of the river to summon a ferryman. The point being, the sources of these two words are so far removed from the modern everyday consciousness that the average English-speaking person today thinks of them as simply the greeting and farewell words: meaningless interjections used for specific social interactions.

Now, let’s check out the English-Hawaiian dictionary entry for “Aloha”:

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!

There’s a lot of really good stuff going on there! So why does “Aloha” get so readily translated to just “hello and goodbye”? Yes, it’s true that in the traditional Hawaiian culture, folks would greet each other by saying, “Aloha” [and variations thereof], and then when parting would again say, “Aloha.” And, yes, the way the Hawaiian language frequently reuses words for nouns, verbs, and adjectives, it can be the equivalent of the verb, to greet. But these instances aren’t truly equivalent to the meaningless interjections we have in English. As the dictionary entry above states, Aloha means love. It means affection. It means compassion, mercy, sympathy, pity, kindness, sentiment, grace, and charity. In my mind, a proper translation of “hello” and “goodbye” would be that people in Hawaii greet and depart from each other by bestowing love and affection: with aloha. An Aloha greeting is more akin to the stereotypical hippie greeting of “Peace, man,” than it is to “Hello.”

Obviously, I’m no linguistic expert, with my haole colonizer ʻōkole being here for just a few brief years so far. But whenever I hear, “‘Aloha’ means ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye,’” I bristle. This translation doesn’t do the word Aloha any justice; it’s much deeper than that. Greeting with Aloha is a blessing, a gift, a presentation of respect and heart-felt conveyance of compassion, kindness, and grace. It is the verbal manifestation of the foundational bedrock for interpersonal relations in traditional Hawaiian culture. We are exchanging and wishing love for one another; we’re not just calling for a ride.