Placenames - Some Background

Mission: Learn Honolulu's placenames

(consult list, learn from maps and references)

Why study placenames?

Three dollar words:


The science or study of the origins and forms of words esp. as used in a specialized field. The science or study of the origin and forms of proper names of persons or places. (-Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, 1973)

Perhaps this leads one to: Onomatomania - an uncontrollable obsession with words or names or their meanings or sounds, especially a mania for repeating certain words or sounds.

Toponymy or Toponomy...

  1. (... you see both).
  2. The place names of a region or language or esp. etymological study of them.
  3. The nomenclature of regional anatomy.


  1. To remove or modify the parts (of a book, for example) considered offensive.
  2. To modify, as by sortening, simplifying, or distorting in style or content.

... after Thomas Bowdler (English physician, 1754-1825) who "cleaned-up" Shakespeare.

Functions/types of placenames:

See studies by Wilbur Zelinsky, Irene Vasiliev, George Stewart, Renee Lewis and others. They have offered several typologies of placenames, but usually come up with a list about like this:

NB and NBB

NB: orthography compounds difficulty. My appologies that my wp does not do diacritcals well (yet).

NBB: cultural and linguistic context can also increase the difficulty of understanding placenames. (e.g., missed dipthongs)


Some basic Hawaiian words used in placenames:

Land Form & Geographic Feature Terms

wai - stream, river, pond, fresh water
pu`u - hill, mound, 
moku - district, island
lua - pit, crater, hole
lae - cape, point, forehead
mauna - mountain
pali - cliff
ana - cave
one - sand, beach
papa - flats
puna - spring
ahu- heap
awa - bay
kipuka - green area surrounded by lava
loko - pond, lake
mana - branch, fork
lapa - ridge

Other Things in Nature

lani - sky, royal chief
pohaku - stone
kai - sea, seaward
la - sun, day
ua - rain
po - night, dark
kaha - place
ahi - fire
malu - shade, shadow
au - current
ao - clouds
lau - leaf
koko - blood


kahi - one
lua - two
kolu - three
hā - four
lima - five
... etc ...
lau - 400 (many)
mano - 4,000 (a great many)
kini - 40,000 (a great great many)
lehu - 400,000 (a great great great many)


loa - long
nui - large, big, great
iki - small


`ula - red
kea - white
`oma`o - green

Some Maps with placenames


Some Placename Stories (mo`olelo)

Data & Information Sources:

  1. GNIS - USGS (all capitals, no diacritical marks)
  2. Place Names of Hawaii by Pukui, Elbert, and Mookini
  3. Sites on Oahu, Sterling and Summers