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Hawaiian Word of the Day: Hīhīmanu

January 5, 2010

hīhīmanu - lavish, elegant, sting ray or eagle ray

Today’s Hawaiian word is hīhīmanu. I particularly like it because it may refer to the ocean, the land, or aestheics. The Hawaiian Dictionary tells us that hīhīmanu can translate into English as three distinctive things:

  1. sting rays or eagle rays
  2. elegant, lavish, magnificent
  3. a peak on the island of Kaua‘i

The linguistic example that Pukui and Elbert provide is:

He nui ka hīhīmanu o kā lāua mau anaina ho‘okipa i hā‘awi ai.

They gave very lavish receptions.

Reading directly from the Hawaiian, I arrive at something a little more literary: “Great was the magnificence of the receptions that the two of them gave.”

Semantics aside, I’m in love with this word. There is a definite otherworldly beauty to the rays, which seem to fly within the oceanic realm. Now, which idea did hīhīmanu first describe, I’m not qualified to say. Were things of elegance called hīhīmanu in deference to the beauty of the underwater creatures? Or were the rays that the people of old saw swimming in the water so attractive that they were called hīhīmanu, an incarnation of the elegant?  Perhaps, a Hawaiian language scholar will let us know one day.

In any case, I think hīhīmanu is great addition to an aesthetic vocabulary. It transcends simple physical beauty and captures that special quality that immediately captures one eye just like the graceful flight of the rays behind the ocean surface. I prefer it over the other two words for elegant, ho‘ohiehie and hiluhilu, which simply refer to appearance alone. With hīhīmanu, we’re connected to beauty, ocean, and land in just four syllables. He keu o ka hīhīmanu paha kēia.

I found it unfortunate that, when searching for information about sting rays online, many sites talked about the dangerous barbs that string rays carry. But sting rays are not aggressive animals and will only attack in self-defense. Perhaps, if people could avoid sensationalism and allow the hīhīmanu live in peace, they could see their real beauty instead of seeking a threat.

To close, check out this clip on the Galapagos from the BBC to see hīhīmanu embodied.

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