Many people have grown up to believe that the term haole comes from: hā (breath) ʻole (without). To add confusion to that even some Native Hawaiians have accepted this and in the wikipedia entry also mentions this. But it is an incorrect and superficial rendering of the word. The word “haole” does not mean “without breath”. Any one who is familiar with the Hawaiian language, Hawaiian grammar and basic Austronesian linguistics knows that that word can not be broken apart in that way linguistically because ‘ole can not made ro create an elison (slurred with the preceding word). ‘Ole consists of four letters (‘ + o + l + e), begins with a consonant (‘) and the stress is on the ‘o. Pau’ole (end-less) for example is never pronounced as “Paule” by manaleo or native speakers of Hawaiian. Without getting heavy into piliʻōlelo (Hawaiian grammar), elisons in Hawaiian are only created by two vowels and mostly occurs when a preceding definite article (ka/ke/nā) is followed by a noun that begins with a or e.
In addition, traditional Hawaiian mele and mo’olelo never use that term in the context of being “breathless” nor as a marker of race, “mana” or religious practice. It actually had no racial connotations prior to the 1840s. The idea of race itself was not within the traditional Hawaiian way of thinking which emphasizes genealogical kinship particularly to the land. Nor did it have any negative connotations until the 1860s when Henry Whitney, founder of the Commercial Advertiser (today’s Honolulu Star Advertiser) complained about assertive Hawaiian newspapers like the “Ka Hoku Pakipika” because of their nationalistic content and his newspaper was beginning to lose subscribers. It is also interesting to note that “Ka Hoku Pakipika” preferred to not to use word “haole” and instead used the terms kōlea and malihini to describe specific actions that foreigners were doing towards Native Hawaiian culture and language. In fact, the first major complaint about “racism” was not from Native Hawaiians but were directed to Native Hawaiians and specifically against King Kalākaua himself by members of the “Missionary Party” because originally the king had wanted to take two Native Hawaiian cabinet members on his world tour in 1881. This allegation would be used against him throughout his reign because the king had a habit of trying to appoint cabinets composed of 50% Native Hawaiians and he tried to bring Chinese and Japanese into his Privy Council of State. Previously, cabinets were primarily composed of non-Native Hawaiian. Asians were almost absent from the government, though many were becoming naturalized by the 1870s. It was at that time that the term “haole” acquired its modern negative and racial connotations by Native Hawaiians and Asians due to politics of the time. Before that, historically and in Hawaiian mythology, it existed but had nothing to do with race but was merely a trait or a classification of peoples who one does not share an immediate (meaning eight generations or less) genealogical connection to or speaks an unfamiliar language. In other words, something (yes, it can be used to describe an object) or someone “different” than yourself, uncommon in Hawai’i, or originating outside of Hawai’i. It was not a racial term.
The Kumulipo, for example, uses the word “haole” no less than seven times in describing peoples born of different traits. Kamapuaʻa is actually described as being haole because of his bright brown eyes and in some accounts, his ʻehu complexion and hair (reddish-brown). In other words, a physical trait. There are a number of name chants that use the term “haole” to describe either traits or peoples who speak language that could not be understood. For example, in the 600 line mele honoring Kuali’i, one of the greatest O’ahu kings and who unfortunately does not even have a school named after him, there is an account of Kuali’i’s voyage to strange lands:
“O Kahiki, ia wai Kahiki? Ia Ku!
(Kahiki, to whom belongs Kahiki? To Ku!)
O Kahiki, moku kai a loa, Kahiki,
(island far out in the ocean,)
Aina o Olopana i noho ai.
(Land where Olopana dwelt.)
Iloko ka moku, iwaho ka la.
(Inside is the island, outside is the sun.)
O ke aloalo ka—la, ka moku, ke hiki mai.
(In that land the sun hangs low in the sky.)
Ane ua ike oe? Ua ike.
(Perhaps you have seen it,)
Ua ike hoi au ia Kahiki.
(I have indeed seen Kahiki.)
He moku leo pahaohao wale Kahiki.
(An island with weird unearthly voices is Kahiki)
No Kahiki kanaka i pii a luna.
(Of Kahiki are the men who ascend up.)
A i ka iwi kuamoo o ka lani;
(To the backbone of the sky.)
A luna, keehi iho,
(Up there they tread,)
Nana iho ia lalo.
And look down below)
Aohe o Kahiki kanaka;
(No human beings in Kahiki.)
Hookahi o Kahiki kanaka, he Haole
(One kind of men in Kahiki, the haole)
Me ia la he akua, me au la he kanaka.
(He is [acts] like a god, I like a man)
He kanaka no.
(A man indeed.)
The translation is from Dr. Curtis Lyons as published in the Journal of the Polynesian Society in 1893 and as recorded by Judge Abraham Fornander. In this case the term haole is being used to describe people who do not speak the same language as you do. “Me ia la he akua, me au la he kanaka” also alludes to the fact that the people of that place do not seem to have the same kapu. In fact, that is another connotation of the word from other mele inoa—people who do not have the same cultural norms because they do not share the same language and if they do not share the same language, then there is a question of kinship. This idea linking language and kinship is deeply embedded within many Polynesian and Pacific cultures. It also should be noted that some imply that this particular section is talking about Kuali’i’s travels to Tahiti, the Marquesas, and the Americas because of the use of nautical terminology (iwi kuamoo o ka lani, etc) and the phrase “leo pahaohao”. The term “leo pahaohao” is also a phrase used in some Hawaiian newspaper accounts to describe the language Captain Cook and later the missionaries spoke or sounded like to Native Hawaiians of that era. In fact, in many of the mo’olelo and mele, speaking in a different language and the word haole are normally in the same context. In the Kamapua’a epic, the word is used to describe how different his eyes, hair color, and skin tone were from other people. Again, nothing to do with race, hā or mana. A more accurate translation of the term “haole” therefore might be “someone or something that is different or has different traits than one’s own”.
I personally think that one of the reasons why the missionaries were called “haole” had nothing to do with the way they prayed (as the urban legend goes) or they being “breath less” but due to historical and mythological references associating the term “haole” with those who speak a foreign language or “leo pahaohao” as the mele inoa of Kuali’i does. Native Hawaiians did not make the term “haole” into negative racial slur. It was actually the descendants of American missionaries who first began to turn “haole” into a pejorative term because of politics. The concept of “race” as we know it today did not exist in the Hawaiian world view 200 years ago. The word “haole” is some ways is similar to the word “Kanaka” (which in Hawaiian meant “person”) which had no negative meanings but became in many contexts a pejorative term used by newcomers to describe Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders in general. Unfortunately, due to the historical events (i.e. 1893), misinformation, and the way people used both “haole” and “kanaka”, both terms became like niho ʻawa (poisonous fangs). Today, Native Hawaiians have reclaimed “Kanaka” in the context of “Kanaka Maoli” and “kanaka” no longer carries the stigma that it did in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Perhaps its also time to re-evaluate the term “haole” in its proper context and should not be used in negatively. Racism should have no place in anyone’s heart and is a poison. At the same time, one should understand context and history why for example certain terms became used in the way that they continue to be used and why such divisions were created in the first place.