Samoan vs. Hawaiian names

In my last entry, I went on-and-on about the Samoan language, and made a few comparisons with other Polynesian languages, which reminded me of a brief incident years ago that demonstrates the difference between many Samoan and Hawaiian names:

There were a number of Hawaiians and Maoris serving at the same time I was a Latter-day Saint missionary in Samoa, so it was natural enough after the mission when I had moved to Laie to meet one of the Hawaiian Elder’s sisters one day at the University of Hawaii (where I was studying Indonesian at the time). I knew her by sight, but not by name.

Before she told me, she first asked me not to laugh. She then explained that many Hawaiian names are often quite beautiful or poetic in meaning — indeed they are — whereas a lot of Samoan ones were a little goofy, and that her Hawaiian name did not mean the same thing in Samoan (although it was a perfectly good Samoan word).

“My name is Maile,” she said, explaining this is the name of the prized and fragrant Hawaiian maile vine used in special lei, “and not the Samoan word for dog.”

It was a moment of cross-cultural understanding for me, because I also knew some Samoans named Maile (pronounced something like my-lay) and definitely meaning ‘dog’. I also knew Samoans named after the day of the week they were born on, the day of the month, the month, and so on. I knew kids named Loketi (Rocket), after the space program that was going on, and Lady Bird (after President Johnson’s wife who visited American Samoa), Kennedy (after the President) and even a guy named Pïuï (Pee-wee) after an old-time cowboy movie actor his parents saw on the screen. Appropriately, he worked on the government’s cattle ranch. There are people named after characteristics: Malosi, strong; Umi, tall; Vave, fast; and so on. Don’t forget Laie, and Hawaii — not the places, but the names of people. Then there were — and still are — a host of Presidents, Dukes, a King Mosiah, and so forth; and even my friend Hitler.

Many Samoan and other Polynesian names can also be quite long: That’s because they are often a combination of several words written as one. For example, I knew a palagi [Caucasian or Haole) baby who was given the middle Samoan name Toefuata’igaoletalalelei — 23 letters, if you don’t count the taofi or ‘okina (glottal stop) — which means “Restoration of the Gospel.” Even shorter Samoan and Hawaiian names are often combined words, such as Asofä — ‘day’ + ‘four’ = ‘the fourth day’; and Leilani — ‘flower garland’ + ‘heaven’ = “heavenly flower,” as in the 1930s song hit, Sweet Leilani. Kalani, a common Hawaiian name, or part of a Hawaiian name, literally means ‘the’ + ‘heaven’ (which is sometimes a synonym for royalty) = “The Heaven” or “heavenly one.”

So, for example, with a little understand of the meaning of Hawaiian words and knowing the modifying word usually comes after, you can start making up your own Hawaiian names, some of which you’ve probably heard before: pua = flower, so Pualani also means “heavenly flower”; ala = fragrance, hence Puaala means “fragrant flower”; aloha = love; nui = big, lots…and so forth.

Of course, combined and especially long names often get shortened into nicknames, but some Hawaiians believe to do so also cuts the mana (spiritual essence or power) of the original name. Also, some Hawaiian names have a kaona or deeper meaning below the surface translation that is often only known to family members. Partially for this reason, some believe you must be “given” a Hawaiian name by a kupuna (elder), which is certainly more true of family names.

There’s been a modern tendency to start separating some of these combined names. For example, soon after HRI started the local community newspaper, Kaleo o Koolauloa (The Voice of Koolauloa, the traditional Hawaiian district of Oahu that runs from Kaaawa to Waimea Bay), a reader wrote in that the name should be spelled Ka Leo o Koolau Loa. Indeed, the City and County has taken to calling our district Koolau Loa (although they’ve redrawn the boundaries to stop at Kawela Bay). I responded I would change the spelling when we start breaking up all the other combined Hawaiian words that are so common: Wai + kïkï = ‘spouting water,’ from the wave action; and even Lä’ie — which some say is a contraction of Lau + ‘ie’ie = ‘the leaf of the ‘ie’ie vine…and so on.

There are also some combined Samoan and Hawaiian names (as well as among other Polynesians) that might seem “strange” in translation, but have historical and/or cultural significance, such as the Samoan high chief Pua’a’elo — Stinking Pig. I think I prefer the mental image of the fragrant maile in a name.


  1. [NOTE: My very first companion, in the old Mission Home at the northwest corner of North Temple and Main St. in Salt Lake City, before we even got to Samoa submitted the following]:

    Reading your blog about some Samoan names, I thought you might like this one. While going through baptism records in the mission home, I came across this name: Pua’aelotautalafuaali’i Faga. In one of my next areas in Moesavili, Savai’i, we were visiting a member and the lady of the family asked us if we would like a niu [young coconut]. I said yes so she started to calling, Sau ia, Pua’a.

    I asked her why she called he little girl a pig. She explained that her daughter was in line for a respected family name, and the family had came up with Pua’aelotautalalfuaali’i.
    If I understand the meaning correctly: “A stinky pig that talks freely to high chiefs.”

    One other question, did you know a Jack Taleni who worked at the PCC a few years back? He is the principal of the Vaiola School. His real name is Siakisoni Loe Taleni. They call him Jack: While serving in Moesavili, President and Sister Taleni named their baby after myself and Elder Roe — Siakisoni Loe Taleni. I met him when we went to Samoa last February. His mother, Va, had us come to her house for dinner: A lovely lady, and a great Lobster dinner.

    I enjoy your blog.

    Elvin Jackson

    [NOTE 2]: While my companion, Elder Malcolm Pace and I lived in Tuana’i, Upolu, he correctly predicted the exact date a pregnant woman in the Tuana’i Branch would give birth. Sure enough, the baby was born on that date…and the couple named him Malcolm Michael after Elder Pace and I.

    I asked Pasi how he knew, and he said it was an old rancher thing (his family had been involved in ranching and logging in Arizona): There were likely to be more births during the full moon — extra tidal pull and all that. Malo, Pasi! Fa’afetai Siakisoni!

  2. jake rowley says:

    wow that is awsome I have been looking for jack taleni for years he was a mission comp of mine if any one has an address or email for him I would appreciate it or if some one could give him mine please contact me @



  4. Malcolm Pace says:

    Thanks for remembering the “Pasi”. I was just telling some of our kids about the chin and calf exercises we used to do. Our youngest son (now 27) is named Michael after all of the exemplary Michaels in our lives.

    Manuia, Your brother in the Gospel. (This phrase was stolen from you and I use it often.)

  5. Hi There,

    I read your article about the Samoan and Hawaiian was great.The comment i have is the old samoan lady that you talk about her and she say don’t laugh about what she is going to say.The samoan language has two part,one is a polite way to say the word and the other is slang way to say it.In reallity about her name is maile lei.It is the beautiful lei and smell good that we use it to travel or Po Fiafia(Samoan Night Event).Thats the polite way we say it.In Samoa will never name a person with an animal name.Thats call inapporiate and never will.Sometime will abbreviate the name short,Example(Pagota abbrev Pago)means the island city of american samoa.Pago Pago

  6. Taupoimasina says:

    Apparently “Pagota” is clueless. The name of the island is Tutuila…. also known as American Samoa.
    PAGO PAGO or simply “Pago” is not an abbreviation for Pagota.
    Simply clueless or perhaps just another stirrer.

  7. Fuafetoimailelagi-Fiasalemeanai says:

    Apparentyl “Taupoimasina” can’t read..”Pagota” states that pago means the island CITY of American Samoa..not that the name of the Island is Pago.

  8. Salamasina says:

    Its great that we have a polite way of saying what the names or words mean in the Samoan language.. Otherwise, if it was just the slang way.. Their would be ppl name after “dog, pig etc..” Lol and that would just be plain mean! Is “pagota” really a abbreviation for Pago?? I thought the word pagota means “prisoner” or is that the meaning for it in the slang way?

  9. Samoa Rocks Hawaii is Ok BUT Samoa is independent from USA so SAMOA WINS VS HAWAII IS OK

  10. Tapumanaia says:

    The languages of Hawaii and Samoa are very similar. I believe there are more similarities than there are differences. But I should note that I’m speaking of and for the Samoan Language. In Samoa there are two ways of speaking. The first is the everyday common language, the other is the proper formal way used in church and traditional ceremonies. In daily language we would use words that have multiple meanings, but for every one, good or bad there is an equal formal and respectful way of saying it.

    The names you mentioned above like Loketi and Lady Bird these are modern day names people feel like using to recall events or things that took place at or around the time the child was born. But true Samoan names of old were beautiful and had deep meaning. Maile is a modern word referring to a dog as there were no dogs in ancient Samoa. But there is a lei (ula lau maile) which is worn at special occasions, today mostly at weddings. Hawaiians try to use names today with deep meaning and they look for names with deep meaning because they want their children to have strong meaningful names that are cool too. Some Samoans do the same but for the most part it’s a name. In many cases Samoans will be given one name and called something else. Many Samoans have nicknames. Example you could be born as John but people call you Kiogi in Samoan, or you might be called something completely unrelated, like Jojo, or Booncha. They are just nicknames. It don’t mean Samoan names (true names) Have no poetic or deep meaning. Ask around and I’m sure you will find some.

  11. Maile Kimber says:

    I am so I have been told since I was little my Bio-father was Hawaiian Samoan so imagine my surprise to know my name has two meanings although I do not mind the second definition I am rather amused. Thank you for writing this piece.

  12. Stumbled upon your blog tonight while looking for the meaning of a Hawaiian name. I live in Utah, now, but lived in La’ie (for far less time than I would have liked) and. went to BYU-Hawaii before my mission (Houston Texas). I also have Poly fam (by marriage) on both sides , though I am just a Haole, and my grandpa served his mission in Samoa.

    The world is so small, even smaller in the islands, and smaller still in the Church!

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