An Emerging Trend? Hawaiian Names on the Rise

While looking at the 2016 data on the fastest rising names, one trend stuck out to me on the girl’s list. Names that rose over 100 places last year included:








Clearly, there’s a bit of a microtrend for feminine names ending in -lani. The suffix is Hawaiian for “the heavens,” “sky,” or “chief” and is very common in Hawaiian names for both boys and girls.


But the -lani enders aren’t the only Hawaiian names catching on; Kai, Hawaiian for “sea,” has been steadily gaining popularity for boys since the 90’s. Malia, a Hawaiian form of Mary, has had a similar trend (somewhat assisted by the eldest Obama daughter). Keanu returned to the boy’s list in 2016 after an eleven-year hiatus. So I wonder: are Hawaiian names a trend?


My first thought was that the data was simply reflecting the large number of babies given Hawaiian names in Hawaii. But looking at the most popular names in the state, that doesn’t seem to be the case:


Hawaiian Top 10

  1. Noah / Olivia
  2. Liam / Mia
  3. Ethan/Emma
  4. Elijah / Isabella
  5. William / Ava
  6. Logan / Riley
  7. Luke / Aria
  8. Aiden / Amelia
  9. Ezekiel / Sophia
  10. James / Grace


Not a single Hawaiian name ranks in the Hawaiian top 10 for either gender, and while Hawaiian names rank lower on the list, there aren’t enough babies given these names to really make a difference on the national list. For boys, Hawaiian names ranking in the top 100 include Kai at #17, Kainoa #57, Keanu #67, Kaimana #87, Kekoa #88, and Makana #99. For girls, there’s Anela at #38, Kalea #33, Mahina #42, Leilani #45, Malia #46, Kiana #48, Anuhea #81, Naia #87, and Kailani #98. While these names are relatively common in Hawaii, the population of the state simply isn’t large enough to make a significant impact on the national data. Leilani, for example, is #45, but that represents only 16 babies- a tiny fraction of the 1,959 girls given the name nationally.


Then I thought that perhaps Hawaiian is simply an “in” language- trendy in the way that French names like Nicole and Stephanie were in the 80s. But looking at the national data, I’m not sure that’s the case either. None of the top 100 names for either gender are Hawaiian, and though Hawaiian names are rising quickly, they don’t rank particularly high.


I think what’s really going on here is an attraction to sound. Graceful, lilting, vowel-heavy names are in- from Aria and Aaliyah to Isaiah and Leonardo, many parents seem to be searching for names with the flowing, musical sound that so many Hawaiian names offer. Hawaiian’s high frequency of vowels (5, with only 12 consonants) lends itself to melodic names. And perhaps that’s the real trend here- parents want their children’s names not just to sound well, but to positively sing.

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