Let me start off by saying I love Slate.com. Their political, scientific and cultural commentary and analysis is usually smart and readable. Usually.
I discovered a notable exception this morning. Titled “United Slang of America,” the piece offers up what author Matthew J. X. Malady believes is the “official word” or preeminent “unique word” of each state. It’s a humor piece, of course, and many of the results are clearly supposed to be funny (“hella” for California, “cattywampus” for Alabama, “whirlygust” for Tennessee and so forth).
Of course I skipped right down to Hawaii, to see the word Malady picked as the representative slang of Hawaii, as well as its definition and usage, and that’s when I got queasy:
aloha (noun): greeting/farewell; (adjective): welcoming, friendly, kind
Maybe I’ve just lived out here too long. But seriously, “aloha” isn’t a mere colloquialism, but an actual word in the Hawaiian language–a language spoken by peoples conquered by the United States in the late 19th century. It’s also (at least as far as its native meaning is concerned) far more than a mere greeting and/or farewell.
In fact, it was a profound term of affection that “upholds, reaffirms, and binds relationships,” according to University of Hawaii cultural specialist Malcolm Naea Chun. “Aloha should not be taken lightly,” Chun wrote in his slim 2011 book Aloha: Traditions of Love & Affection (which sadly seems to be out of print). “It should not be used casually or frivolously.”
And this is where the Slate slang piece veers into cultural appropriation. For those not up to speed on the latest in social science academia, here’s a great definition of “cultural appropriation, taken from this Aug. 30, 2015 Huffington Post blog item from Kadia Blagrove: “Cultural appropriation is when white media trivializes and adopts aspects of other cultures without proper recognition, representation and respect.”
Though Slate and Malady are rather flippant about all this, I’m not blaming them for equating “aloha” with “hella” (California) or “chughole” (Kentucky). No, culpability for that crime lays at all of our feet. All Slate did was report that people in the U.S. really do see “aloha” as just a kitschy way of saying “hello,” and have done so for many years. And that’s true.
Make no mistake: the appropriation of concepts like “aloha” happens here in Hawaii, too. Remember Aloha Airlines? Seen an Aloha Waste garbage truck lately? Or any of the other myriad products and/or services that find the need to insert “aloha” into the name? It’s all using Hawaiian culture and ideas for contemporary commercial reasons, and it’s hella messed up.
All that being said, the true “official” slang word for Hawaii is obviously “da kine,” brah.
Photo of old Aloha Airlines hanger: Forest & Kim Starr/Wikimedia