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1 May 2018
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Big Island

The names of areas around the Big Island of Hawaii have significant meanings. We put together the history behind some of the recognizable town names and districts on the island: Hilo and Puna.

The following song is from Na Mele o Hawai`i Nei, 101 Hawaiian Songs, collected by Samuel H. Elbert and Noelani Mahoe. Other information is either from Place Names of Hawaiʻi, by Pukui, Elbert and Mookini, or the Hawaiian Dictionary by Pukui and Elbert.

Hilo, Hanakahi, i ka ua Kani-lehua
Puna, paia `ala, i ka paia `ala i ka hala.
Ka`ū, i ka makani, i ka makani kuehu lepo
Kona, i ke kai, i ke kai hāwanawana.
Wai-mea, i ka ua, i ka ua Kīpu`upu`u.
Kohala, i ka makani, i ka makani `Āpa`apa`a.
Hāmākua, i ka pali, i ka pali lele koa`e.
Ha`ina ka puana, i ka ua Kani-lehua.


Hilo refers to both the town of Hilo and the districts of South and North Hilo. In the song, we start in Hilo-Hanakahi which is an area towards Ke-au-kahaHanakahi was a famous chief of Hilo. There are typically three references to Hilo: Hilo-one (sand Hilo), Hilo-Hanakahi and Hilo-pali-ku (Hilo of the upright cliff, east of the Wailuku River). Hilo is thought to be either named for the first night of the new moon or for a Polynesian navigator. The word Hilo has multiple meanings, but one of the main definitions is "to braid or twist." Hilo is also a type of grass (mau`u-Hilo), as well as a variety of sweet potato. However, be careful with this word as it can also mean gonorrhea: a running sore. Hilo is famous for its Kani-lehua rain (lehua rustling).

So, why does Hilo mean "to braid or twist"? We were told that when Kamehameha landed in Hilo by canoe, he instructed one of his followers to hold the canoe so it would not drift away. Later, when the follower came to his assistance, Kamehameha was grateful for the help but angry that he had left the canoe unattended as it might have drifted away. The man showed Kamehameha that he had twisted cordage to hold the canoe. Since they were in Hilo, that particular type of braid was referred to as Hilo.


We then travel to Puna. This is the name of the district. The word “puna” can numerous meanings, including:

  • A spring of water or coral, lime, plaster, calcium, coral container
  • The section between joints or nodes as of bamboo or sugar cane
  • The cuttle bone as of squid
  • An abbreviation for kupuna (elder) as a term of address
  • An abbreviation for punalua (used for spouses sharing a spouse, two husbands or two wives)
  • Verb meaning "to paddle with the hands," as to start a surfboard to catch a wave
  • The Hawaiian word for spoon.

We think Puna, in this case, has the first definition. Since the aquifer in Puna has so much water and there are numerous springs, Puna probably reflects the number of springs in the area.

In Nā Mele o Hawai`i Nei, the reference to Puna is translated as “Puna, fragrant bowers, fragrant bowers with the scent of hala” (pandanus). The translation from Pukui, in `Ōlelo No`eau is “Puna, with walls fragrant with pandanus blossoms.” Puna was once known for its groves of hala and `ōhi`a-lehua trees. According to Pukui, in the olden days, people would stick bracts of hala into the thatching of their houses to bring some of the fragrance indoors.

You are probably familiar with lau hala, the pandanus leaves which are used to make hats, mats and other plaited things. Hala has female trees which bear the pineapple looking fruit; however, it is the male tree that bears spikes of fragrant pollen bearing flowers, or hīnano.

Hīnano bracts were used to plait the finest garments called ahu hīnano. The bracts were dried and torn into very narrow strips before plaiting. These garments have a soft, fine texture and were characterized by marvelous flexibility. Hīnano had another use as well. The entire inflorescence was used as a love charm. Girls would pick them and chase a boy of her choice, and upon catching him, beat him over the head with it. Supposedly, the pollen would then coat his head and make the boy fall in love with the girl. The pollen was often collected to be used as an aphrodisiac. It could be placed in a drink and given to someone to drink; often the person drinking might be unaware of what they were drinking.

To praise a well-formed person (good looking, nice body, etc.) one would say, niniu Puna, pō i ke `ala: “Puna is dizzy/overwhelming with the fragrance of the hala flower.” Perhaps the Mayor’s parents were thinking of all these things when they gave him his name: Puna-paia-ala-i-ka-hala.

Ready to continue to Ka’ū? 

From Puna, head to Ka’ū with Part 2 of Origins of Place Names Around the Big Island.