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Hawaiian Word of the Day: Kai a Pele

March 2, 2010

kai a Pele - tidal wave, tsunami

Today’s Hawaiian word of the day is kai a Pele, or tsunami or tidal wave.

The inspiration for today’s choice was obviously the events of this past February 27, 2010, following the oceanic surge sent throughout the Pacific Ocean by the Chilean quake. On a side note, I must say that some celebratory champagne from the night before had led me to think of something more sinister concocted by Kim Jong Il when I was awakened far too early by the sirens’ metallic screech at 5:50 in the morning. Hence, I was “relieved” to learn that the crisis at hand was actually natural.

Before I get complaints from the scientifically-inclined, I’d like to underline the difference between tsunami and a tidal wave. While tsunamis are generated by geological disturbances, the key word in the layman’s term is tidal, referring, of course, to the tides. Since tsunamis are not caused by the tides, tidal wave is discouraged as term to describe the phenomena. (At the same, tsunami literally means “harbor wave” in Japanese, so here’s to the scientific community’s selective recognition of etymology.)

Now that the digression is over, back to the ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i. Though the Hawaiian word for wave is nalu, the Hawaiian terms referring to tsunami or tidal waves found in Pukui and Elbert’s Hawaiian Dictionary use instead the word kai, or sea.

Besides kai a Pele (literally “sea of Pele”), other terms are kai e‘e (mounting sea) and the variant kai ho‘ē‘e. As a verb, ho‘ē‘e can be to rise or swell. I do recall hearing some Ni‘ihau speakers dropping the word kai and using either e‘e or ho‘ē‘e on its own to refer to the destructive wave. Interestingly enough, the Hawaiian term is closer to the actual nature of the tsunami, a swelling of the sea that surges ashore as opposed to one crashing wave. The receding of the ocean that precedes the tsunami is called kai mimiki.

Personally, I prefer kai a Pele because it refers to the wahine kapu (sacred woman) of Kīlauea herself, Pele, and her awesome powers. Not only the creator of new land, Pele also makes the earth tremble in ōla‘i, or earthquakes—the generator of the tsunami.  In the lower case, pele refers to lava and eruption. And if my understanding of Hawaiian grammar is right, the possessive a suggests that the destructive sea does not just belong to Pele but is created or generated by the goddess herself. Though the hula kahiko “Aia la ‘o Pele” refers to eruptions, I think it’s meditative inquiry “I hea kāua e la‘i ai, ‘ea?” (Where can we find peace?) is equally appropriate for kai a Pele.

Fortunately enough, the Pacific was spared from the kai a Pele this past weekend. Since I was already awake Saturday and suffering from my own ōla‘i (of notably French origin) between my temples, I jumped online to see what was occurring in French Polynesia because of the region’s closer proximity to Chile. The Gambier Islands only recorded 26 cm. The harbor in Pape‘ete, Tahiti only noted marginal rises. The minimal waves Because of their topography, the Marquesas, or Te Fenua Enata, recorded the strongest waves, measuring up to four meters at Ua Pou. On Radio Polynésie, a local resident reported seeing tourbillons, or whirlpools, form in the water. A day later, La Dépêche de Tahiti published the following photos—not exactly kai a Pele but curious enough.

Whirlpool caused by February 27, 2010 tusnami - Ua Pou, Marquesas

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