The Aloha State’s largest city, Honolulu, is one of the most distinctive capitals in the United States, thanks to its colorful Polynesian history, World War II sites and museums, and melting-pot ethnic diversity. It’s also one of the few U.S. cities with a volcano looming over it—the iconic Diamond Head, known in Hawaiian as Lēʻahi. Honolulu is also unusual for a state capital in that most of its neighborhood names aren’t in English. Instead, almost every single district’s name comes from the Hawaiian language—one of the state’s two official languages—and they almost all have interesting backstories. (Honolulu itself means “calm harbor.”) Here are a few more.
Once a seat of governmental power for the island of Oahu (likely due in no small part to the excellent surfing conditions), Waikiki became a popular tourist destination with the explosion of surf culture in Hollywood films in the late 1950s and early ’60s. The village itself, though, dates back to at least the 13th century, when it was mostly swampland—the word Waikiki means spouting water, after the springs and rivers that abounded in the area.
Located mauka (on the mountain side) of Diamond Head, Kaimuki is more down-to-earth than its glitzy neighbor Waikiki, with a reputation for eclectic boutiques, book stores, and affordable restaurants, but it has a legendary past. The word ka-imu-ki likely translates to “the tī oven,” referring to the tī (also known as ki, or Cordyline fruticosa) plant, a member of the asparagus family. It’s said that the mythical Menehune people steamed the plants in underground ovens on the hillside in the Kaimuki area.
3. ʻĀINA HAINA
A community east of Waikiki, ʻĀina Haina was for centuries called Wailupe, which means “kite water,” for the kite flying that was popular in the area. It was also the last outpost of the city, where the residential blocks turned into pig and dairy farms. It was one such dairy farm, in fact, that brought about its name change—the Hind-Clarke Dairy was once a leading local dairy best known for its ice cream parlor on Kalanianaole Highway, which runs through the area. When owner Robert Hind sold the dairy in 1946, the neighborhood was named after him: ʻĀina Haina means “Hind’s Land” in Hawaiian.
Kakaʻako has seen a lot of change throughout the years. The neighborhood was originally home to agricultural terraces, fishponds, and salt ponds, which were considered highly valuable. In the 1880s, immigrant camps were built in Kakaʻako, which later became quarantine zones as smallpox, bubonic plague, and Hansen’s disease (more commonly known as leprosy) hit the island. By the ’40s, there were around 5000 working class people living in the area who came from as far away as Portugal and China. Around the same time, the area was becoming increasingly industrialized, with many of those people working at the Honolulu Iron Works. Today, Kakaʻako is known as a hip commercial area with craft cocktail bars and expensive condo buildings. But the word kakaʻako harkens back to its humble roots: It has been translated to mean a place to "chop, beat or prepare thatching," a reference to the local salt marshes where Hawaiians once gathered the grass for their roofs.
Connecting downtown Honolulu and the Mānoa neighborhood, Makiki is a mix of blue-collar and well-to-do Honolulans, partially stemming from its past as a plantation district—both rich plantation owners and workers once lived there. It will probably always best be known as the childhood home of Barack Obama, however, who spent most of his youth living in his maternal grandparents’ apartment on Beretania Street. But long before the future president lived there, the valley was home to a basalt quarry, where the stone was specifically used to fashion octopus lures. This explains the name makiki—it’s the Hawaiian word for the weights in the lures.
Just inland from downtown Honolulu, the neighborhood of Mānoa consists of an entire valley, stretching roughly between the Koʻolau Mountain Range and Lunalilo Freeway. Many Hawaiian myths are set in Mānoa; it’s said to be the home of the Menehune [PDF], who controlled the valley from a fort on Rocky Hill, near where Punahou School now sits. As for the name itself, mānoa is a Hawaiian word that translates to “thick,” “depth,” or “vast,” which certainly describes the valley itself.
The neighborhood of Mōʻiliʻili lies just across the freeway from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, sandwiched between it and Waikiki. King William Lunalilo owned the land in the mid-19th century, and before that, Queen Kamamalu's summer cottages stood on the site where The Willows restaurant now stands. Mōʻiliʻili’s name comes from an old Hawaiian myth wherein three characters are teased by a moʻo, a mischievous lizard totem god, who then gets zapped by a lightning bolt and transformed into a pile of rocks, now a specific hill in the neighborhood of the old Hawaiian Church. Kamo'ili'ili means “pebble lizard” or “place of the pebble lizards,” and the name was later abbreviated to Mō’ili’ili. The neighborhood is also known as McCully-Mōʻiliʻili, after Lawrence McCully (1831-1892) of the Hawaiian Supreme Court.
The phrase “ka pā lama” translates to “the enclosure of lama wood,” and lama is the word for the Hawaiian ebony tree, which once heavily forested the area. Also called the Hawaiian persimmon for its astringent persimmon-like fruit, the lama tree is found on every Hawaiian island except Ni‘ihau and and Kaho'olawe. It was used by native Hawaiians for food, medicine, frames for fishing nets, and religious purposes, such as the construction of temples. The tree itself represented Laka, the goddess of hula dance, and the trees are used in the hula performances. While lama usually refers to the tree, the word itself literally translates as “light” in Hawaiian, and by extension enlightenment—because that’s what you attain when you learn the hula. These days, Kāpalama is often combined with the adjacent Liliha neighborhood and referred to as a conglomerate district, Liliha-Kāpalama.
Like nearby Mānoa, Pālolo takes up an entire, very picturesque valley. Snuggled between Kaimuki and the mountains, the valley’s mauka (mountain side) is mostly agricultural land, home to orchid nurseries and grass farms, while the makai (ocean side) is densely residential, populated mostly by simple plantation-style cottages. Although it’s only four miles from downtown Honolulu and well within the city limits, Pālolo maintains a small-town, rural aesthetic, and as such, its name is appropriate: The word pālolo means “clay” and pertains to the type of the soil in the valley.