M. Giant's
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Tuesday, June 03, 2003  

Where the Streets Have Long Names

I think I’ve figured out why people in Hawaii drive so much slowly than people here on the mainland. It’s not just because they don’t have as far to go, although that’s certainly part of it. It’s not just that living in a tropical paradise is anathema to road rage, because I can tell you firsthand that tropical paradise ends at the curb. It’s because of the Hawaiian language.

I know that last sentence alone is going to offend somebody. But I hope you’ll let me explain. Hear me out. Then you’ll be really offended.

We need to start with a little backstory here. Precious little, in fact, because everything I know about Hawaiian history is what I learned from reading James Michener’s Hawaii back in 1986. So some of my facts may be on the shaky side. But what I do know is that when the original Hawaiian settlers came from Australia to the islands roughly seven million years ago with Thor Heyerdahl on the Kon-Tiki, their language was strictly a spoken one. And I guess they didn’t get a written language until the Christian missionaries started coming over from the mainland to give them one, along with malaria and colonialism and political assassination. But it looks like whoever took up the project of transcribing Hawaiian words into written form did a half-assed job; the Hawaiian alphabet only has twelve letters, all of them borrowed from the Roman alphabet. So it wasn’t even a half-assed job. It was a six-thirteenths-assed job. Shameful, really.

So now Hawaiians only had a limited number of letters to come up with names for everything. Obviously they didn’t need as many words as English has (even English doesn’t need as many words as English has. English is only as huge as it is because it steals words from every other language, which means we have anywhere from three to 937 words for any given item, a fact I make frequent use of on these pages. English even stole from the Hawaiian language, which is why we have words like “Aloha,” “Luau”, and “Keanu.” But I’m getting ahead of myself). Still, to assume they only needed names for “water,” “sky,” “land,” (which would also serve as the word for “surfboard,” because same general concept, really) “that guy,” and “that other guy” was condescension of the purest form. But the Hawaiians were stuck, so they had to make the best of it. And the only way to do that was to string the few letters they had into longer and longer and looooooonger combinations. And then, centuries later, cram those combinations onto street signs.

The only other possible explanation is that it’s too hard to get enough reflective green paint in Hawaii.

Whatever the cause, the result is total confusion. At least on my part. I mean, if my directions say I need to drive four blocks on Kealohilani Avenue and take a left on Liliuokalani Avenue, I’m going to have problems. And not just because those two streets run parallel to each other. Trash and I had exchanges like this any number of times:

“Do I turn at Kaaaaahaaaaaaalaaaaaah or at Kaaaaaaaaalaaaaaaaahaaaaaaaah?”

“You were supposed to turn at Meeeeehooooosomething.”

“We’re not at Meeeeehooooosomething yet.”

“You’re thinking of Meeeeehooooothingy. That’s still a couple of blocks up.”

“Oh, okay. I’ll turn here at Kaaaaaakaaaaaaaalaaaaaaaah and go around the block to get back to Meeeeeehoooooosomething.”

“Wait, don’t we want Kaaaaaakaaaaaalaaaaaaaah in the first place?”

“No, we wanted either Kaaaaaahaaaaalaaaaaah or Kaaaaaaalaaaaaaahaaaaaaah, which you’ll recall was my original question.”

“Hey, we’re coming up on Huuuuuuukaaaaaaaaalaaaaaaaaah. We know how to get back to our room from there.”

“Ready for a nap, then?”


I did notice that the red lights there seem to be quite a bit longer than the ones here, which I now realize is a measure put into place to allow motorists enough time to read the names of the intersections they’re at.

To make things worse, the way to get a thoroughfare named after you is apparently the same as it is here: be impressive. Of course, the more impressive figures in Hawaiian history seem to have the longest names. The Kamehameha Highway, for instance, is named for the king who first unified the islands. The aforementioned Liliuokalani was Hawaii’s last monarch, a queen who was apparently so badass that it took the U.S. Marines to depose her. Our rental cottage was on Portlock Road (thank God), which split off from the Kalanianaole Highway. With a mouthful like that for a moniker, I would have expected him to have invented lava or something. But Kalanianaole turns out to have been a Republican politician from Hawaii’s early days as a U.S. Territory, and the fact that the H1 freeway turns into a road named after him indicates that it must have been a lot harder to be a Republican back then.

At least the freeways have names that are easy to manage for a haole (a Hawaiian word that in this case means “pale-ass jerk mainlander with a superior attitude who thinks he can get cheap laughs from making fun of Hawaiian street names”). H1 and H2 and H3, while comparatively prosaic, are difficult to get confused with “Kilioluaniamaunualili,” and the fact that they use a different naming convention than freeways on the mainland keeps ill-informed motorists from thinking they can drive to San Diego if they can just find the correct on-ramp.

Although, if more people thought that, maybe they’d drive faster.

posted by M. Giant 3:55 PM 0 comments


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