A Bibliographic Survey of Collections of Hawaiian Sayings


The publication in 1983 of ‘Olelo No’eau: Hawaiian Porverbs and Poetical Sayings, collected, translated, and annotated by Mary Kawena (Wiggin) Pukui, is the occasion for suverying what has been done in regard to the orally transmitted, traditional sayings of Hawaiians.1 But first what about the book and Mrs. Pukui? This fifty-year collection was begun in 1910 when she was fifteen years old, a girl whose Hawaiian mother and Caucasian father encouraged her to be bilingual and bicultural, a bridge between Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians.

The 2942 items in this volume do not exhaust the number Mrs. Pukui knows. Even a random checking of her own earlier publications and those to which she contibuted show that one can readily add items that she somehow overlooked. Although she does not cite her published and manuscript sources she has obviously drawn on them, as my comparison will reveal. Also included in the volume are items that, to my knowledge, have not been recorded before and may represent sayings limited to a small community. Mrs. Pukui, after giving the Hawaiian of each saying, follows it with an often free English translation that, while losing some of the qualities of Hawaiian style and structure, makes the saying comprehensible. When she has added a commentary it varies from a single word or phrase to a whole column.

As Mrs. Pukui will be 90 years old in 1985 and has been hospitalized for the last ten years she was unable to assist the Bernice P. Bishop Museum staff members in preparing the book for publication, but they have done an excellent and beautiful job to honor a former staff member. They have given each saying a number and listed it by the first letter of the first Hawaiian word. Included are a preface, a note about those who inspired Mrs. Pukui, a long biography, a selected bibliography of her publications, a list of her awards and doctorates, and six indexes. The indexes enable one, with a little practice, to locate a particular proverb or the sayings related to particular topics, persons, or places. A predominantly English topical index is followed by those on real and legendary place names, personal names of gods and people, common names (usually in Hawaiian but with English cross-references) of birds, fishes and other aquatic animals, and plants. Each index cites the numbers of the items to be consulted.

There is such a variety of types of traditional expression that my list only hints at the richness. There are figurative and nonfigurative proverbs consisting of one or more parts or sentences; some are in the form of statements, others are questions, and some are declarative statements to which questions have been added. There are quotation proverbs, dialogue proverbs, and proverbs derived from riddling matches or representing answers to riddles. There are proverbial boasts, taunts, mottoes, curses (and replies), oaths, prophecies, warnings, insults, omens, blessings, challenges, commands, rallying calls, dream interpretations, weather signs, characteristics of persons born in certain months, and hundreds of poetical phrases (as well as derogatory ones) about people, places, winds, rains, seas, and much more! There is much punning and personification, but the various compositional structures and elements of style remain to be analyzed.

This was not Mrs. Pukui’s first collection of proverbs to be published. In 1923 Laura Green (who had encouraged the fifteen-year-old girl to write down all she knew about Hawaiian life), published Hawaiian Stories and Wise Sayings.Of the 77 sayings quoted, most of them probably from Mrs. Pukui, 68 reappear in this latest book, with clarification of one or two words or interpretations that had earlier puzzled the two friends.

In 1940 E. S. Craighill Handy whom Mrs. Pukui had assisted in the field in gathering information and then of translating, published The Hawaiian Planter, to which Mrs. Pukui contributed at least a half dozen proverbs and traditional sayings about plants. In 1958 the two published a monograph on the family system of Ka’u, the district on Hawai’i where Mrs. Pukui was born. In a chapter devoted to traditional manners and etiquette in relation to the social order (pp. 160-206), Mrs. Pukui wrote that she wished to present the traditional Ka’u attitudes and practices “in such a way as to give a lively sense of relationship and the home; of status and obligations; of kapu, manners and etiquette.” “It has seemed,” she added, “… that a simple and effective means of conveying a sense of these intricacies and actualities in the doings of a lively people would be by interspersing the descriptive matter and our comments with sayings and expressions relating to the topics under discussion.” She illustrated her points with 153 proverbs, traditional phrases, and single words in Hawaiian, with English translations. This chapter fleshes out the meanings and usages of those sayings which were listed in the 1923 volume and reappear in that for 1983.

In 1959 she and Samuel H. Elbert published a Hawaiian-English dictionary which encompasses, as did all later revisions, a number of proverbs and phrases, literally translated and sometimes interpreted, that Mrs. Pukui provided to illustrate words. Not all of them are in the 1983 collection. In 1960, Jane L. Winne and Mrs. Pukui produced a small collection of sayings for children. And in 1972 E. S. C. Handy and E. G. Handy with Mrs. Pukui’s collaboration published Native Planters in Old Hawaii: Their Life, Lore, and Environment, a continuation of The Hawaiian Planter. Among the numerous sayings from earlier publications and manuscripts by Hawaiians and others were a considerable number contributed by Mrs. Pukui. Many are in the 1983 collection.

In 1974 when an enlarged and revised edition of Place Names of Hawaii by Mrs. Pukui, Samuel Elbert, and Esther Mookini was issued, Elbert added an important appendix (pp. 235-280) on many facets of the subject. Of particular relevance here in this essay is a major section on “Connotative values of place names” (pp. 266-277) where Dr. Elbert discussed, with numerous examples in Hawaiian, with English translations, palce names in sayings, narratives, chants, and songs. In general the appendix contributes significantly to understanding and appreciating the place names that appear in the Pukui collection.

Among the earlier writers from whose works Mrs. Pukui obviously drew for her massive collection was the Frenchman Jules Remy, who in 1859 was probably the first to present to the outside world a few Hawaiian proverbs and other sayings. Moreover, he quoted three or four proverbs and several traditional phrases in Hawaiian, with translations, and in the context of the information given him on Hawaii in 1853 by his “vieu sauvage” named Kanuha or Kamiki. The elderly informant, who had known Captain Cook, had been a runner for King Alpa’i (who died around 1752) and a courier for his successor King Kalani’opu’u (who died around 1780). Both kings were Kamehameha’s close kinsmen. In 1868 W. T. Brigham published an English translation of Remy’s essay.

To illustrate the power of the priests, the kahunas, Remy’s informant quoted (I give only Brigham’s translation): “The priest’s man is inviolable, the chief’s man is the prey of death.” Pukui No. 224, with a slightly different translation, interprets it as a warning not to antagonize an influential man’s friend; anyone as important as a kahuna would do his best to protect his own servant. Some of a king’s rights were illustrated in the saying: “O luna, o lalo, (o), kai, o uka, o ka hao pae, ko ke ‘lii, All above, all below, the sea, the land, and the iron cast upon the shore, all belong to the king.”2 Pukui (No. 2504), with a slightly different translation, attributes the saying to Kamehameha but it may be older. In a variant (No. 2505) “iron” is replaced by “whale” (valued for its teeth). An example will illustrate how interpretations change. The phrase “the hewn stones of Umi,” Remy found, applied literally to the stone ruins of this ancient chief’s heiaus, or temples. Pukui (No. 2289) does not mention this but says that the phrase refers to the girls in the chief’s household who, although well cared for, could not, any more than stones, go about freely from place to place. Chief ‘Umi-a-Liloa is known to have had six and perhaps seven wives.

The Reverend Lorrin Andrews’ Hawaiian dictionary in 1865 has at least one proverb to illustrate a word. For oia, “always,” he quoted “He oia ka mea hawawa i ka heenalu hai ka papa. The awkward person always breaks the board in riding on the surf. “The Hawaiian of Pukui No. 204 is more concise: “Hawawa ka he’e nalu haki ka papa, When the surfrider is unskilled, the board is broken.” The commentary is that “an unskilled worker bungles instead of being a help. There is also a sexual connotation: When the man is unskilled, the woman is dissatisfied.”

During the nineteenth century, several Hawaiian scholars, who wrote for Hawaiian-language newspapers about Hawaiian history and culture, employed many traditional sayings and thus helped keep them current, or spread them, among Hawaiians and those foreigners who read these newspapers. The serialization of these contributions in the newspapers led to the proverb (Pukui No. 1101) reffering to anything put off until later: “To be continued, according to the newspaper.” Although English translations of selections sometimes appeared in island magazines, the entire works of most of the scholars were not translated into English and published until the twentieth century.

The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio – Issue 9:1999 & Issue 10:1999, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

Dickey (1928:17-18) quoted a chant: “This is Hilo of the drenching rain, the unending rain of Hilo./ The lehua dripping rain of Panaewa./ Then Hamakua.” To the string-figure chanter this meant that for the young couple “the disapproval of their relatives fell from their ears as lehua flowers in a beating rain.” Hamakua is the metaphor for the obstacles the lovers encountered and overcame. Hamakua is where fishermen, holding their fishing gourds between their teeth, climbed down the steep cliffs to the sea on hazardous rope ladders. Pukui Nos. 438-440 are descriptive phrases of the jagged Hamakua landscape. About Hilo rain there are phrases like “Hilo of the endless rain” (No. 462) which also refers to a talker: “Hilo of the constant rain, where it never clears up” (No. 998), and “Hilo of the pouring rain” (No. 1001). No. 1585 is “The lehua-shedding rain of Pana’ewa,” a phrase “famed in chants of old.”

In 1928 seven issues of the short-lived magazine Aloha, which printed both the English and the Hawaiian of each article, had an unsigned collection of 79 sayings in Hawaiian, with English translations but no comments. Over sixty of them are in the Pukui collection. The Aloha collection would have effectively scotched the notion that Hawaiians have no true proverbs. The only proverbial phrase included is “Returned to the breakers like the moi.” The moi, a threadfish, is found in the foam, and the saying refers to a person who leaves home but eventually returns (Pukui No. 1026).

That the translator did not know that the wiliwili is a flowering tree is evident in the translation of “Pua ka wiliwili nanahu ka mano, pua ka wahine majkai nanahu ke kanawai. When the wiliwili jumps up and down, the shark bites; when beautiful woman cavorts, the law bites.” Pukui No. 2701 is “When the wiliwili tree blooms, the sharks bite; when a pretty woman blossoms, the law bites.” The commentary: “A beautiful woman attracts young men–sharks–who become fierce rivals over her. The law prevents the rivalry from getting out of hand–it can ‘bite.’ It is said that when the wiliwili trees are in bloom the sharks bite, because it is their mating season.”

Some proverbs have originated from real situations about which popular stories have also developed. (And existing proverbs have given rise to new stories based on them.) Aloha magazine has not only what is now a proverb, namely, “A ka Lae o Kalaau, pau ka pono a Kikina, At the point of Kalaau end the teachings of Thurston,” but the story about the girl who, on leaving the school taught by the Reverend Thurston, sang, as the ship passed Kala’au Point on Moloka’i, what became the saying in order to announce that now the virtues taught her a school were forgotten and she would have her fling in Honolulu. See also Pukui No. 97.

A proverb in which the speaker can insert the name of his own locality or generalize it without naming a place is illustrated by variants in the Aloha and the Pukui collections. Aloha has “Ua ka ua i Puuohaloa, ihea oe, When the rain fell at Puuohaloa where were you?” The generalized form (No. 1156) is “Ihea ‘oe i ka wa a ke ua e loku ma, Where were you when the rain was pouring?” This is the reply to a person who wants food from a neighbor but did not help when the earth was being prepared for planting; if the person had been lazy he received nothing, but if he had been away he would be given food.

The Aloha collection has an incomplete saying in Hawaiian but an expanded translation. “Mai walaau, Be silent lest the wind roar.” The Hawaiian term merely means “Don’t speak,” or “Be quiet.” The translation suggests that the collector had in mind the same proverb as Pukui No. 274: “E hamau o makani mai auane’i, Hush, lest the wind arise.” The commentary explains that it warns people to be quiet or trouble will come, and the saying is derived from the silence enjoined on pearl-oyster gatherers at Pearl Harbor who believed that if anyone spoke a gust of wind would ruffle the water and the oysters would vanish.

The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio – Issue 9:1999 & Issue 10:1999, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

“Hawaiian riddling,” she stated, “involves a different technique from the proverb. Although one art doubtless plays into the hands of the other, it is doubtful whether one is a direct development of the other. Proverbial sayings use popular allusions in riddling fashion, but riddling seems rather to derive from the discipline of learning in the hands of the ruling classes. It is an expert rather than a popular art.”

She then discussed, in general, the nature of the expert art of riddling, which, it may be added, she had dealt with more concretely in an article “Hawaiian Riddling” in the American Anthropologist (1922). There Beckwith described the contests of wit (ho’opa’apa’a) between trained experts in objective knowledge and manipulation of language. A contestant’s repertoire included more than the ability to ask or answer very complex riddles, for the rules were strict in judging his wit and knowledge and his life and fortune might depend on the outcome. Some of the riddlers’ challenges and exclamations during contests have become proverbial sayings. Pukui No. 11, for example, commands the contestant to speak up and tell what he has come for: “A word in reply; open the mouth and speak, for a listener is here.” Pukui No. 1856 is the exclamation by one who cannot guess the answer to a riddle or match his opponent’s pun: “Kuailo!” He means “I give up.” His opponent, if he does not wish to give the answer, replies, “Maggots move, death!”

In conclusion, I have indicated in connection with the publication in 1983 of Mary Kawena Pukui’s collection of 2942 sayings, the earlier major sources and types of sources in which Hawaiian proverbs and other traditional sayings have been published and which have served in part as sources for Mrs. Pukui. From these sources and her collection I have quoted examples of the different circumstances in which the sayings were employed and the meanings, sometimes changing over time, given to them. A few sayings have also been examined that were puzzling because of a distorted or incomplete Hawaiian text, poor translation, lack of knowledge of Hawaiian culture and environment, or forgotten meaning. Hawaiians applied their old proverbs to the changing culture initiated by the arrival of Westerners, and also developed new sayings that reflected aspects of this alien way of life.

Of the sayings that have been collected, somethings is known about their content and usage but the systematic linguistic and stylistic analysis of the different forms and structures of these sayings has scarcely begun. There is much to be done in research on the sayings of this highly verbal and poetic people.


Permission to publish this article granted by Proverbium (Editor: Prof. Wolfgang Mieder, University of Vermont, USA).
Previously published in Proverbium 2 (1985), pp. 279-306.

The full citation of this and other works mentioned in my paper is given in my Bibliography.

Early writers did not use diacritical marks; later writers used some; the usage in the Pukui collection is as accurate as can now be determined. In quoting these writers directly I have followed their usage. Some writers italicized Hawaiian words, others italicized some, and still others did not bother. In quoting I have followed what they did. Many Hawaiian words are now in unabridged dictionaries and have become part of the English language, thanks to Professor Samuel H. Elbert. In my own comments on sources I have not italicized these words. When writers quoted proverbs and other sayings in the Hawaiian language I have italicized them in order to set them off from the English translations.


Andrews, Lorrin

1865 A Dictionary of the Hawaiian Language. Honolulu, H. M. Whitney.


1882 “Hawaiian Proverbs.” Hawaiian Almanac and Annual for 1882. Honolulu, Thos. G. Thrum.


1928 “Na Olelo Noeau Hawaii. Old Hawaiian Sayings with English Translations.” Aloha: An English and Hawaiian News Magazine. Vol. I, Nos. 1-7, June 15, 1928-Sept. 15, 1928. Honolulu, Aloha Publishing Co.

 Beckwith, Martha Warren

1919 The Hawaiian Romance of Laieikawai with Introduction and Translation. Translated from the Hawaiian text of S. N. Haleole, Honolulu, 1863. Thirty-third Annual Report of the Bureau of AmericanEthnology, pp. 285-666. Washington, D. C. See also HALEOLE.

 1922 “Hawaiian Riddling.” AmericanAnthropologist, Vol. 24, No. 3, July-Sept., 1922, pp. 332-333.

1932 “Hawaiian Riddles and Proverbs.” TheFriend, Vol. 102, Feb., 1932, pp. 332-333. Honolulu.

Bringham, W. T. See REMY, 1868.

Dickey, Lyle A.

1928 String Figures from Hawaii. Including Some from New Hebrides and Gilbert Islands. Bernice P. Bishop Museum, Bulletin 54, Honolulu.

Emerson, Joseph S.

1924 Hawaiian String Games. Folklore Publications of Vassar College. No. 5. Poughkeepsie, Vassar College.

Emerson, Nathaniel B.

1909 Unwritten Literature of Hawaii. The Sacred Songs of the Hula. Bureau of American Ethnology,Bulletin 38. Washington, D. C. Repr. Rutland, Vt. And Tokyo, Japan, Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1965.

1915 Pele and Hiiaka. A Myth of Hawaii. Honolulu, Honolyulu Star-Bulletin, Ltd. Repr. Rutland, Vt. And Tokyo, Japan, Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1978.

Fornander, Abraham

1878- An Account of the Polynesian Race. Its Origin and 1885 Migrations and the Ancient History of the Hawaiian People to the Times of Kamehameha I. London, Trubner & Co. Vol. 1, 1878; Vol. 2. 1880; Vol. 3, 1885. Repr. Rutland, Vt. And Tokyo, Japan, Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1969. Three volumes in one, with Supplement of Index compiled by John F. G. Stokes and a Brief Memoir of Judge Fornander prepared by W. D. Alexander, repr. From Bernice P. Bishop Museum Special Publication, 4, Honolulu.

1916- Fornander Collection of Hawaiian Antiquities and Folklore. With 1919 Translations Edited and Illustrated with Notes by Thomas G. Thrum. Bernice P. Bishop Memoirs, Vois. IV, V, VI, Honolulu.

Green, Laura S.

1923- Hawaiian Stories and Wise Sayings. Collected and Translated by Laura S. Green. Edited by Martha Warren Beckwith. (First Series) Vassar College Field-work in Folklore. Publications of the Folklore Foundation, Number 3. Poughkeepsie, Vassar College.

Haleole, S. N.

1863- Ka Moolelo i Laieikawai. Honolulu. Kuokoa 1865-1866; reprint by Solomon Meheula and James Bolster (pamphlet). Honolulu, 1888. See also BECKWITH, 1919.

Handy, E. S. Craighill

1940- The Hawaiian Planter, Vol. 1. Bernice P. Bishop Museum, Bulletin 161, Honolulu.

Handy, E. S. Craighill and Elizabeth Green Handy

1972- Native Planters in Old Hawaii: Their Life, Lore, and Environment. With the Collaboration of Mary Kawena Pukui. Bernice P. Bishop Museum, Bulletin 233. Honolulu, Bishop Museum Press.

Handy, E. S. Craighill and Mary Kawena Pukui

1958- The Polynesian Family System in Ka-‘u, Hawaii. With a Concluding Chapter on the History and Ecology of Ka-‘u by Elizabeth Green Handy. Wellington, N. Z.: The Polynesian Society Inc. Repr. Rutland, Vt. And Tokyo, japan, Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1972.

Hyde, C. M.

1883- “Note.” Hawaiian Almanac and Annual for 1883. Honolulu, Thos. G. Thrum.

Ii, John Papa

1919- Fragments of Hawaiian History. Translated by Mary Kawena Pukui. Edited by Dorothy B. Barrère. Honolulu, Bishop Museum Press.

Judd, Henry P.

1930- Hawaiian Proverbs and Riddles. Bernice P. Bishop Museum, Bulletin 77, Honolulu.

1933- “Riddles and Proverbs.” In Ancient Hawaiian Civilization by E. S. .C. Handy et Alia, pp. 213-223. Honolulu, Kamehameha Schools Press. Rev. ed. Rutland, Vt. And Tokyo, Japan, Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1965.

Kamakau, Samuel Manaiakalani

1961- Ruling Chief of Hawaii. Honolulu, Kamehameha Schools Press.

1964- Ka Po’e Kahiko. The People of Old. Translated from the Newspaper Ke Au‘Oko’a by Mary kawena Pukui. Arranged and edited by Dorothy B. Barrère. Bernice P. Bishop Museum, Special Publication 51. Honolulu, Bishop Museum Press.

1976- The Works of the People of Old. Ka Hana a ka Po’e Kahiko. Translated from the Newspaper Ke Au ‘Oko’a by Mary Kawena Pukui. Arranged and edited by Dorothy B. Barrère. Bernice P. Bishop Museum, Special Publication 61. Honolulu, Bishop Museum Press.

Malo, David

1903- Hawaiian Antiquities (Moolelo Hawaii). Translated from the Hawaiian By Dr. N. B. Emerson, 1898; edited by W. D. Alexander. Honolulu, Hawaiian Gazette Co., Ltd. Repr. Bernice P. Bishop Museum, Special Publication 2, Second Edition, 1951. Different pagination from 1903.

Malo, David and Others

1838- Ka Moolelo Hawayy (Hawaiian History). Lahainaluna, Maui. See also TINKER.

Pukui, Mary Kawena

1983- ‘Olelo No’eau: Hawaiian Proverbs and Poetical Sayings. Selected, translated & annotated by Mary Kawena Pukui. Bernice P. Bishop Museum, Sepcial Publication 71. Honolulu, Bernice P. Bishop Museum Press. Pukui, Mary Kawena and Samuel H. Elbert

1957- Hawaiian-English Dictionary. Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press. After 1971 called Hawaiian Dictionary. Hawaiian-English, English-Hawaiian.

Pukui, Mary Kawena, Samuel H. Elbert and Esther T. Mookini

1974- Place Names of Hawaii. Revised and enlarged edition. Honolulu, The University Press of Hawaii.

Remy, Jules

1859- Récits d’un Vieux Sauvage pour servir à l’histoire ancienne de Havaii. Chalons-sur-Marne, E. Laurent.

1868- Contributions of a Venerable Savage to the Ancient History of the Hawaiian Islands. Translated from the French of M. Jules Remy by William T. Brigham. Boston, A. A. Kingman.

Sheldon, H. L.

1883- “Some Hawaiian Proverbs.” Hawaiian Almanac and Annual for 1883. Honolulu, Thos. G. Thrum.

Sterling, E. P., compiler

1974- Index to Ruling Chiefs of Hawaii by S. M. Kamakau. Department of Anthropology, Bernice P. Bishop Museum, Honolulu.

Tinker, Reuben, trans.

1839- “Ka Moolelo Hawaii.” Hawaiian Spectator, Vol. 2. Honolulu.

Winne, Jane Lathrop

1961- ‘Olelo No’eau a ka Hawaii. Folk Sayings from the Hawaiian. With Mary Kawena Pukui. Honolulu.

Katharine Luomala
Department of Anthropology
University of Hawaii at Manoa
Honolulu, Hawaii 96822