Afterthoughts: Thinking Continental

Maybe the Mainland isn’t so main after all.

illustration: daniel fishel

Here at the HONOLULU Magazine offices, we geek out on language. It comes with the job, I guess. On a typical day, we’re brainstorming groan-worthy puns for headlines, puzzling over subtle usage questions and enthusing over new, overheard slang. It’s a regular word nerdery over here.

So when parent company PacificBasin Communications recently welcomed another magazine to the fold—Mana, a new, bi-monthly publication for the Hawaiian community—the editorial team took it as an opportunity to talk story about language some more. Different magazines have different voices, different concerns, different ways of using language, and that’s always interesting to pick apart.

We noticed, for example, that Mana editor Malia Kaaihue, when referring to the contiguous portion of the United States, uses the term “The Continent,” rather than the more familiar “Mainland.”

New vocabulary! The phrase catches the ear. It sounds so old-fashioned the first time you hear it, so … colonial. Which turns out to be at least part of the point.

I talked with Kaaihue to learn more about the origin of the term; she says it’s been gaining popularity in academic Hawaiian Studies circles over the past decade or so, thanks to the way it calls attention to the relationship between Hawaii and the rest of the United States, both politically and geographically. If the 48 states are the main land, doesn’t that make the Islands a lesser land?

I wonder if the term could ever take off on a broad scale. It seems most useful for those who dispute the legitimacy of the U.S.’s claim to Hawaii, but even in an apolitical sense, I like the way the word “Continent” reminds us of how weird it is to be related to a land mass 2,500 miles away. We’re almost as close to Japan as we are to California, after all.

It’s a paradox inherent to islands. We’re physically isolated by ocean, yet connected to other places politically, culturally, economically. The Hawaiian Island chain itself is simultaneously separate and united. These days, that relationship is more universally accepted than the one between Hawaii and the Continent—Kamehameha’s bloody unification being far enough in the past that no one’s still nursing a grudge—but, even after all these years, we’re still working out how to talk about the “inter” part of Interisland.

You’re probably familiar, for example, with the decades-long campaign promoting the phrase “Neighbor Islands” rather than “Outer Islands.” “Outer” is supposedly too cold, too dismissive, too Oahu-centric. We’re one big ohana, here, gotta show aloha! (HONOLULU Magazine’s house style is “Neighbor Island.”)

Growing up on Maui, the word choice didn’t seem to matter much. Our true ranking in the Island chain got broadcast loud and clear every evening on the local TV news, where, night after night, the detailed weather and surf reports focused exclusively on Oahu. Gee, thanks, guys. A real neighbor would have told me what the surf at Hookipa was going to be like tomorrow.

Language engineering is always hit or miss—I seem to hear more people saying “Outer Islands” these days than ever. On the other hand, the pronunciation of the Hawaiian we drop into everyday conversation has come a long way since I was a kid. Haily-maily, Poo-nay-nay, Kam Schools, have turned into Haliimaile, Puunene, Kamehameha Schools. It sounds as though people are trying, at least.

So maybe “Continent” has a chance after all. I’m all for giving the phrase a shot, if only for all the great conversations it’s bound to spark.

The one drawback to saying “Continent” instead of “Mainland?” What are we going to call Mainland haoles? To call someone a Continental haole seems almost an exotic compliment, and what fun is that?