Is it OK for Non-Hawaiians to Use Hawaiian Names?

Mary Astor, 1931

More than 80 years ago, Hollywood actress Mary Astor gave her daughter a Hawaiian baby name.

Mary Astor (born Lucile Langhanke) and her husband Franklyn Thorpe bought a yacht and set sail for Hawaii in May of 1932. One month later, Astor gave birth in Honolulu.

The baby girl was named Marylyn Hauoli. Marylyn was a combination of Mary and Franklyn, and Hauoli came from the Hawaiian word hau’oli, meaning “happy, glad, gay, joyful.”

(The name Hau’oli has never been on an SSA’s baby name list, but I’ve found one other semi-famous person with the name: college football player Hau’oli Kikaha, originally from Oahu.)

Mary Astor choosing Hauoli for her daughter in 1932 reminds me of Helen Hunt choosing Makena Lei for her daughter in 2004. And both of these names make me wonder: Do you think it’s acceptable for non-Hawaiian parents to choose Hawaiian names for their children? If so, under what conditions?


  • Mary Astor – Wikipedia
  • Pukui, Mary Kawena and Samuel H. Elbert. Hawaiian Dictionary. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1986.

P.S. There are a few more Hawaiian names in Tuesday’s post Names Collected on Hawaii’s Big Island.

5 thoughts on “Is it OK for Non-Hawaiians to Use Hawaiian Names?

  1. Its acceptable since people started using italian, french, spanish, irish, scottish names, etc.
    What I dont like is people not respecting spellings (unless they’re gonna be mispronounced in America), or disrespecting gender (like picking up Finley and Skyler and using them on girls.

  2. I think most people would agree with you.

    Though at least one Hawaiian lady I’ve talked to would not. Years ago she sent me a very strongly worded email about my series of Hawaiian “phone book fishing” posts, telling me to take them down, that the Hawaiian names on those lists shouldn’t be up on a baby name site where non-Hawaiians might see/use them. I wish I’d kept that email so that I could quote it, because it was really interesting. Her main concern was cultural appropriation by non-Hawaiian parents who, she said, wouldn’t be able to comprehend/respect the significance of these names.

  3. I agree with Skizzo.

    If a dog can be called ‘Fido’ (Latin for one who is faithful) without social ramifications, why ought a child be restricted from being named from another heritage?

    People have been naming their children after honeymoon locations and best friends who are racially diverse for a very long time.

    It seems that the vast majority of parents try to find the most wonderful name for their offspring… and if Hawaii is paradise, well, its language is bound to end up on some birth certificates!

  4. I think the missing piece is colonialism. European names (Italian, French, Scottish, Spanish) all come from sources of power and dominance. They were imposed on native, subjugated peoples (Black, Amerindian, or Pacific Islander) via colonial governments, enslavement, the Church, or education systems (like forced boarding schools for Native Americans). So, a Hawaiian using a name like John or Thomas is in no way like a White person coming along and adopting a name like Hau’oli (or any other Hawaiian name). Appropriation is about power, and it really doesn’t work in both directions. There’s an element of choice in White naming practices that was denied to people of color, or colonized people, until very recently, and even now it is riskier for a Hawaiian to use an indigenous name (which makes them seem even more “other” or “unassimilated”) than a White person (where it becomes something “exotic” or “cool”).

    That said, I think if you come from the Colonial/Settler ethnic group and you really want to use a name that comes from the indigenous people that your people have oppressed, the middle name position is probably the least offensive.

    Also, I think it’s really different if Whites who have lived among Native Hawaiians for many years or have some kind of real connection and respect for the culture use a name, versus someone who just went there on vacation a few times.

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