English: Boy wearing Hawaiian lei and holding ...
English: Boy wearing Hawaiian lei and holding ukulele (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Looking for an unusual name with a lovely sound and an attractive meaning?  Look to the 50th state.

Thanks to Hilary for suggesting her daughter’s middle name as our Baby Name of the Day: Noelani.

Hawaiian names make for an intriguing bunch.  To a mainstream American audience they seem modern without being truly nouveau.  And plenty of us have pleasant memories of vacations – or even honeymoons and destination weddings – in Hawaii, so it feels like a natural source of inspiration for a child’s name.

And yet many of us are anxious to ensure that we’re choosing an authentic Hawaiian name, one that doesn’t secretly have some awful meaning – the 30-something equivalent of getting a misunderstood Chinese character tattoo in your 20s.

I did a little digging, and apparently it isn’t as easy as it seems.

Hawaiian names were once almost unique – invented by parents to signify the events around a child’s birth, to bestow good fortune, to honor a relative – and could be very long.  In 1860, King Kamehameha IV signed The Act to Regulate Names.  Hawaiians had to receive a Christian – or at least an English – given name.  You might be hard-pressed to recognize the names, though: Daniel became Kaniela.

English had already been taught in schools for a few decades, and it would slowly all-but-eradicate the native tongue.  While parents once chose unique names for each child, by 1960, the most popular names for girls were Susan, Donna, and Karen, with Michael, David, and John on top for boys.  It could be a list from Connecticut or Idaho.

And then things began to change.  The Name Act was repealed in 1967, and native Hawaiians began taking steps to reclaim their language from the brink of extinction.  Names followed, and now Keanu and Leilani appear in the state’s Top 100 along with more conventional choices.

Noelani shares her second element with Leilani and Hokulani and Keikilani and Kailani and Ululani.  Ululani was a member of the royal family sometime in the eighteenth century, and Lili’uokalani ruled in the nineteenth.  The element -lani refers to the heavens, and appears to have a long history of use.

Noe means mist, so the typical meaning given is “heavenly mist.”  I suspect it is something you might experience if you visited the islands, making Noelani a true nature name, too.  Pronunciation is on the third syllable: no eh LAH nee.

A few native Hawaiians named Noelani have made their mark.  There’s ballerina Noelani Pantastico, and singer Nohelani Cypriano.

So yes, Noelani counts as an authentically Hawaiian name, and one that parents can feel free to consider.  But it is worth noting that we’ve barely scratched the surface of Hawaiian naming customs.  Apparently even in 2012, Hawaii names remain gloriously idiosyncratic, and highly specific to the individuals who wear them.  That’s the risk when borrowing names from another culture – some of the nuances can be lost.  Noelani is lovely enough – and established enough – that she withstands being imported into English without sacrificing any of her charm.

About Abby Sandel

Whether you're naming a baby, or just all about names, you've come to the right place! Appellation Mountain is a haven for lovers of obscure gems and enduring classics alike.

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  1. I accidently came across this information and my daughter is the Ballerina, Noelani Pantastico who is now dancing in Monaco. Noelani was born in Oahu, Hi. in 1980.
    Her family have an amazing Hula troop which tells me that dancing is in the blood. Noe left Hawaii at about 4 years old, after her father passed away. Her father, John. B. Pantastico could dance the Mens Hawaiian Hula beautifully. Noelani moved to Portsmouth NH, then Colorado, Maine, and then Pa. where she was trained at Central Pa. Youth Ballet to then become a professional dance and went on the become a Principal at Pacific NW Ballet in Seattle, before moving on to Monaco. ‘Les Ballet de Monte Carlo’.
    It is traditional that the Grandmother in Hawaii choose the babies name, and I think it’s a very special tradition. And the beginning of the child being gifted and loved by all, which Noelani has had that pleasure all through life.

    1. Thanks, Marylou – and congratulations to your daughter on her achievements! I didn’t realize the role of grandmothers in traditional Hawaiian naming customs – interesting to know.

  2. Thanks for this, Abby!

    Though neither of us is native Hawaiian, my husband lived his first 10 years there. The other people I know who’ve considered Hawaiian names (usually in the middle) tend to have similar connections.

  3. Like many Hawaiian names, I love Noelani – although not as much as Noémie.

  4. I went to school with a Noelani. Her parents were from Poland. I guess her parents had heard the name on a trip to Hawaii and decided to use it. I think its pretty.

  5. I agree with the poster above. I would never use a Hawaiian name for fear of being appropriative, particularly now I know about the repression of Hawaiian names among the natives. It wouldn’t feel right.

  6. I’ve always found Noelani pretty. It’s not my culture though, so I’d feel like a poser!

    My cousin, though, married an ethnic Hawaiian guy. Their kids all have Hawaiian middle names – Keona, Makana and one that’s so long I always forget it!

  7. Nohelani strikes me as being a combination of Noelani and ‘nohea’, which means “lovely, handsome, etc.”

  8. When we lost our baby we searched for names with appropriate meanings — we looked and looked and couldn’t find anything that we liked that seemed to fit. Ultimately my husband discovered the beauty of Hawaiian names and decided that he wanted a Hawaiian middle name to go with a first name meaning “star” [I’ve a ‘thing’ for stars.] We ended up choosing the middle name Keikikalani, so the entire meaning turned out to be “heavenly child of the stars.” [A second middle was a family name, we never use it when referring to the baby.] Though neither of us have Hawaiian ancestors, we both feel a connection to the culture — I think it sort of seems like a blending of our partial heritages, his Native American and my Chinese — appropriate, I think, since Hawai`i is midway between the US and China. 🙂

    1. Just wanted to let you know that Keikikalani doesn’t mean “heavenly child of the stars” it just means “heavenly child”. Not trying to be rude or anything, I am just correcting you. I know because my parents lived there, and my name is Keikikalani.

      1. I am really sorry if that sounded rude, that was the opposite of my intention. I was just trying to correct it.

      2. The person said that the child’s first name had a “star” meaning, and that the child’s middle name (Keikikalani) means heavenly child, so ALL TOGETHER the child’s entire name means heavenly child of the stars. The person was not incorrect in the name meaning. Not trying to be rude either, just trying to clarify