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.

11 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 some blog posts that featured Hawaiian names, 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.

  5. If whites or haole have grown up in the islands and are both knowledgeable and respectful of the culture then in some instances it may be acceptable, usually with the blessing of an elder. Otherwise, I’d say definately not. The Hawaiian people are very proud of their culture and traditions. The U.S. stole their lands and outlawed their language and culture. Choosing a Hawaiian name for your baby when not brought up in their culture and traditions is insulting and appropriating in the worst way.

  6. When utilising an Hawaiian name, there is a great kuleana (responsibility) that goes with that. Protocol and respect are that the name is given by an Hawaiian elder or Kumu (teacher). Not simply chosen because it sounds nice or you like the word.
    If people actually took the time to seek the wisdom of the kupuna (elders) and truly listen, they would know it is not pono (right).

  7. I say yes. Plenty of non-irish and non-welsh people are using those names, so why shouldn’t we use hawaiian names?

    As for Mulberry’s comment, all cultures and races have participated in some form of colonialism, racism, slavery, etc. Maybe it’s that marxist communist teachings from universities that gives you those particular views, but maybe it’s time you learned the rest of the history, cause it didnt start or end with white people causing havoc. Also tell me where Irish people were colonizing others? Yet I see people borrowing those names all time. Maybe stop being so sensitive about those things, its a name, just respect the spelling and gender, and honor it, you’ll be fine

  8. I was born and raised on Oahu, have sometimes been called Keoni after a family friend (an auntie, if you understand) started calling me that instead of John. I’m proud of that but see it also mostly with my extended ohana. As others have said, if given to you, if respect the culture, it is a good thing – a way I identify with my own history in Hawaii. I remember years ago a mainland performer called himself Kimo Kane and I always laughed at how silly that sounded

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.