As you spend time in Hawaii, you’ll hear certain Hawaiian words over and over again: mahalo (thank you), aloha (used for “hello” and “goodbye” but also carries a deeper meaning), kokua (help), e komo mai (welcome), ohana (family)—and pono.
Like many words in the Hawaiian language, the full meaning of pono is complex. And like aloha, it doesn’t have a simple English equivalent. However, after great consideration, researcher and scholar Malcolm Naea Chun named pono the greatest Hawaiian value. As such, it’s a word—and a concept—that’s more than worthy of further exploration.
In this article, we’ll explore the complex meaning of pono. We’ll also offer some varying perspectives on the concept to give you a glimpse into the rich significance of this word—and some insight into the role it plays in Hawaiian culture.
What Exactly Does Pono Mean?
Many people first encounter the word pono in the Hawaii state motto, a phrase attributed to King Kamehameha III:
Ua Mau ke Ea o ka ‘Aina i ka Pono.
This motto is most often translated as:
The Life of the Land is Perpetuated in Righteousness.
In other words, pono means “righteousness”—in this case.
But let’s take a look at another usage. Hawaiian Airlines recently launched their Travel Pono program, which offers travelers ways to “explore with care, offering your help to preserve Hawaii’s natural resources, cultures, and communities.”
Their Travel Pono video illustrates another meaning for pono: to do the right thing. In this case, it means ensuring that your travel activities honor the land, as well as the people, plants, and animals that call it home:
So how can we further pin down the real definition of pono? Let’s look to a definitive source: the Hawaiian Dictionary, written by Hawaiian scholar and educator Mary Kawena Pukui and Hawaiian language scholar Samuel Hoyt Elbert.
Their definition of pono is as follows—and it’s about as complete a definition as you’ll find:
1. nvs. Goodness, uprightness, morality, moral qualities, correct or proper procedure, excellence, well-being, prosperity, welfare, benefit, behalf, equity, sake, true condition or nature, duty; moral, fitting, proper, righteous, right, upright, just, virtuous, fair, beneficial, successful, in perfect order, accurate, correct, eased, relieved; should, ought, must, necessary. Pono ʻole, unjust, unrighteous, dishonest, unprincipled, unfair, wrong. No kou pono, in your behalf. Ka pono o ka lehulehu, public welfare. Nā pono lāhui kānaka, human rights. Nā pono o nā wāhine, women’s rights. Ka pono kahiko, the old morality or moral system. Pono i ke kānāwai, legal, legality. Pono ʻole ka manaʻo, disturbed, worried, upset. Me ka pono, respectfully [complimentary close in letters]. Nā mea e maopopo ai kona pono, proofs in his own favor, his defense. Kōkua no ka pono o ka lehulehu, help for the public welfare. Ka noʻonoʻo e pono ai kēia hana, the study necessary for this work. Loaʻa ka pono i ka lāhui mamuli o ke ahonui o ka ʻelele, the people were benefited by the patience of the delegate. E pono iāʻoe ke hele, you should go. Pono ʻo ʻoe ke hele, you should be the one to go. Pono i ke keiki e hele, the child ought to go. Ke ui mai nei ʻoe, ʻaʻohe aʻu pono, when you turn to me, I have no rights. E ʻeha nō a e pono, no ka pinana nō i ke kumulāʻau, serves you right to be hurt, since you climbed the tree. Aia ka pono, ʻo ka pae aku, what is necessary is to reach shore. Pono e pili paʻa loa, inalienable rights. hoʻo.pono Righteous, respectable, correct, upright; to behave correctly. Hoʻopono ʻole, unjust, dishonest. (PCP pono.)
2. vs. Completely, properly, rightly, well, exactly, carefully, satisfactorily, much (an intensifier). Pau pono, completely finished. Piha pono, completely filled; complete, as a thought; clear. Nānā pono, look or examine carefully. Aʻo pono ʻia, well-taught. Ua loaʻa pono ʻo Lawa mā e ʻaihue ana, Lawa and others were caught in the act of stealing. I luna pono o ka puʻu (For. 5:61), at the very top of the hill.
3. n. Property, resources, assets, fortune, belongings, equipment, household goods, furniture, gear of any kind, possessions, accessories, necessities.
4. n. Use, purpose, plan. Ē kuʻu haku, pale ka pono! ʻAʻohe pono i koe, hoʻokahi nō pono ʻo ka hoʻi wale nō koe o kākou, kaʻukaʻi aku nei hoʻi ka pono i kō kaikuahine muli lā hoʻi … (Laie 419; priest is advising his lord to give up quest of Lāʻie and depend on his sister’s help), my lord, set aside the plan; there is no hope left; the only hope is for us to go back and depend on your youngest sister … Nā ʻāpana ʻāina aupuni no ka pono home noho wale nō, government land parcels for the purpose of dwelling houses only.
5. n. Hope. See ex., pono 4. Ua pau ka pono a ke kauka, the doctor has lost hope.
6. vs. Careless, informal, improper, any kind of (preceding a stem). Pono ʻai, to eat in any way or anything, take potluck. Pono hana, to work any way that suits one. Pono nō i ka noho, living any old way, shiftless. Pono lole, any kind of clothes. Mai pono hana ʻoe, akā e hana pono, don’t work carelessly, but work carefully.
As you can see, the word pono has a plethora of meanings. In fact, this is fairly typical of the Hawaiian language. As the preface to the Hawaiian Dictionary states, it’s believed that Hawaiian has more words with multiple meanings than any other language.
This concept is called kaona—multiple layers of meaning within a word. Kaona can also indicate a hidden meaning. While the surface meaning of a word may be completely innocent, a second meaning is available for those willing to seek it.
In summary, the Hawaiian language will frequently ask you to look deeper to get the true meaning of a word or phrase.
Although we don’t have the space to tackle all every single meaning of the multifaceted word pono, let’s take a look at a few of the key interpretations you’ll encounter.
Pono Meaning #1: Embodying Goodness, Uprightness
Malcolm Naea Chun’s book, Pono, the Way of Living, discusses how the concept of pono encapsulated “an overarching belief system that defines the right way to live.” Some cultures might think of these as values or morals, but as Chun notes, there are no words in Hawaiian for these concepts. Instead, acting pono, or acting in the best interest of the community, was simply an integral part of everyday life.
In support of this idea, Hawaiian scholar Davida Malo, in his book Mooleo Hawaii, offers lists of the things that are pono and the things that are hewa. (Like pono, hewa has many meanings, including “mistake,” “fault,” “error,” “sin”—i.e., the opposite of pono. )
We’ve listed them below to show you what Malo considered pono and hewa. These will give you a better sense of Malo’s perspective on the right way to live, as well as the wrong one.
- Withstanding temptation
- Not borrowing the possessions of another
- Farming, fishing, house-building, raising chickens
- Worship of the gods (by ancient Hawaiians)
- Canoe carving
- Robbery, including by violent means
- Slander, malicious gossip
- Indolence, laziness
- Shifting from one mate to another
- Complaining and fault-finding
As you can see, Malo’s list forms a kind of moral code—the things that are good for people to do (pono) and those that are to be avoided (hewa).
Finally, some have simply translated pono as “the importance of living a life of goodness.”
Pono Meaning #2: Maintaining Harmony and Alignment
In addition to a embodying the ideal of goodness, living pono also implies the ideal of maintaining balance with one’s surroundings and one’s community.
Balance was an important concept to the ancient Hawaiians, and it remains important in Hawaii today. In ancient times, it was important for everyone to live in balance with each other—including deities, royalty, and the people—and with the land. Survival on an isolated island chain would be nearly impossible otherwise. Acting pono means maintaining that balance.
You’ll still see this ideal active in Hawaii today, as local activists argue for a better balance between tourism and the preservation of Hawaii’s natural resources. Imbalance will destroy both the land, and then, in turn, Hawaii will decline in attractiveness as a destination for visitors.
You can also see this principle in action in the Waimanalo Pono Research Hui. The project was designed to “align university-style research with community entities.” In other words, the WPRH strives to create a balance between researchers and the community members they wish to study. Whereas communities in the past may have felt that researchers simply took what they needed without giving back, the WPRH aims to establish an equitable partnership that benefits both parties.
As the WPRH defines it, pono is a “sense of being and a way to work, act, respect, and treat people and the land to create balance and harmony.”
Ho’oponopono: Restoring Harmony and Balance
Along with the importance of maintaining harmony and balance, the ancient Hawaiians also acknowledged the possibility of falling out of alignment. In those cases, the ritual of ho’oponopono comes into play. The fact that this practice remains part of the culture today is largely due to Mary Kawena Pukui, who worked with the staff at the Queen Liliuokalani Children’s Center to standardize an ancient practice so it could endure in modern times. Thanks to her work, people today still have the chance to use the spirit of these ancient Hawaiian traditions to set things right.
Many people have adapted the practice, but if you want to trace its authentic origins from ancient Hawaii to modern day, we recommend Ho‘oponopono: Traditional Ways of Healing to Make Things Right Again by Malcolm Naea Chun.
Pono Definition #3: Should / Must
Finally, let’s cover a pretty straightforward definition of pono, one that resonates with all the other meanings we’ve discussed. Pono can be an auxiliary verb that simply means “should,” “must” or “have to,” as in “I should go home right now” or “I have to go to the store right now.”
This usage reflects back to the ideas of goodness, morality, harmony, and alignment—demonstrating the obligation inherent within the word pono. It reflects the duty we have to each member of our community and to the land we live on to act in everyone’s best interest so all may live in happiness and harmony.
Pono: Your Window into Hawaiian Culture
In commercial terms, Hawaii is often reduced to a few select images: white sand beaches with swaying palm trees, girls in grass skirts dancing the hula, warm breezes, and tropical cocktails.
However, if you’re willing to look a little further, you’ll discover Hawaii’s true legacy: the rich, complex, and fascinating culture of the native Hawaiians. Like the word pono, the more you explore, the more you’ll uncover. If you take some time to appreciate the ideas, words, songs, traditions, and stories of the people who originally made Hawaii their home, you’ll cultivate a much deeper appreciation for these unique islands and the people who settled them.