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 The Name Act was repealed in 1967, and native Hawaiians began taking steps to reclaim their language from the brink of extinction.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.