Haole: Is It a Bad Word?

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Capt. James Cook. Wikipedia Commons image.

Capt. James Cook. Wikipedia Commons image.

Haole. Some cringe immediately when they hear that word! But it’s really not a bad word— it has been around since before Capt. James Cook arrived here in the Hawaiian Islands.

It is popular belief by those who have dissected the word haole (“ha” means breath of life and “‘ole” means “without”) that it literally means “no breath.”

The Polynesians (who first made Hawaiʻi their home in the fourth century), believed that the skin tone of Capt. Cook and his men (who arrived here in the 18th century) is what led them to be called “haole.” Many of the Hawaiian people thought they were so light-skinned because they did not breathe…

In 1834, there was an article printed in a missionary newspaper that described a recital by haole children in November 1834, with Hawaiian royalty, the American consulate and other notable persons from O‘ahu in attendance. The word was simply used to describe the children in the recital.


As with many different words, meanings change over time. Today, “haole” is basically a word used in Hawai’‘i to describe a white person.

Many cultures around the world have their own term for haole. In Latin America its “gringo.” In New Zealand, the Maori use the word “pakeha.” Samoan’s use “palagi.”

So, what about the term “local haole?” Is that a contradiction in terms? Absolutely not. In today’s world and word usage, it simply means “of European ancestry, and born and raised here in the islands.”

What is “hapa haole?” It is the term used to describe those of mixed race or Hawaiian music that consist of Hawaiian and english lyrics.


It is worth noting that Princess Kaiulani was, in fact, hapa haole. Her mother was Princess Miriam Likelike, Kalakaua’s sister. Her father was Scottish-born Archibald Cleghorn, one-time governor of O‘ahu.

When asked individually, several kumu hula expressed their thoughts on the word “haole” as a way to describe ones behavior or mentality—again, not in a bad or derogatory way, but describing one’s thinking as not being in line or sensitive to cultural issues.

There is and always will be great debates surrounding the use of the word “haole” as we use it today.

Yet if one can simply remember that, like many other words out there, it is all about the context and how you say it. The word can either convey a fact or an insult.


Example: “My best friend growing up was a haole girl from the Mainland.”

Example: “Go back where you came from haole!”

Hawai‘i is considered the melting pot of the world. People of all races live here. No matter when we got here and where we came from, we should simply remember that its only a person’s character and heart that matter.

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