Merriam-Webster Updates Definition of “Hawaiian” With a New Usage Note

The word has a new note next to it on Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, thanks, in part, to an email from a local writer.

It was on Facebook at the beginning of 2016 that I witnessed two people argue about the meaning of “Hawaiian.” One person from Hawai‘i said the word should only be used to refer to the indigenous people of the Islands, and the other person from another state used Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary to argue that it’s OK to refer to all residents in Hawai‘i as Hawaiian.


Hawaiian definitionWe all know what it’s like to explain to people not from here that you shouldn’t use Hawaiian in the same way you describe someone as Californian or Iowan. It’s caused awkward moments in national headlines, such as when Michelle Wie, who is Korean American, was described as a Hawaiian and, more recently, during the false missile alarm when news stories described the general population of Hawai‘i as Hawaiians.


Usually, I would roll my eyes and continue my day. However, seeing it in black and white on Merriam-Webster’s website—what’s supposed to be an authoritative source—made me cringe.


The definition read “a native or resident of Hawaii; especially: one of Polynesian ancestry.” I thought maybe Merriam-Webster, which is based in Massachusetts, didn’t know any better. So, I emailed to explain the definition was blatantly wrong and that it was propagating the incorrect use of the word.


As part of my argument, I used the Associated Press’ 2005 update to its Stylebook, which most news media use as a guide when writing stories. “Hawaiians are members of an ethnic group indigenous to the Hawaiian Islands and are also called Native Hawaiians,” it reads now. “Use ‘Hawai‘i resident’ for anyone living in the state.”


If it weren’t for this change, and the decades of written work that followed, I don’t believe I would have received a response from Merriam-Webster two days later. The dictionary looks at the way words are commonly used to produce definitions, and the use of “Hawaiian” has changed dramatically through the years. Merriam-Webster noticed and told me it would make a change in the next update. It didn’t happen immediately, so I continued to email and check the website periodically.


Two years later, I finally noticed a new usage note to Merriam-Webster’s definition: “In Hawaii, the word Hawaiian is understood as an ethnic designation for a native person of Polynesian descent, and its use in the more general sense ‘a resident of Hawaii’ is considered an error.”


Stephen Perrault, director of defining at Merriam-Webster, says that people outside of Hawai‘i still use the word Hawaiian to mean any resident. “The evidence also shows that in Hawai‘i, the word has a different, more specific meaning, and its use in the broader sense is considered an error,” Perrault says. “So we want our entry to describe the use of Hawaiian accurately, and I think the best way to do that is to keep the existing definition, but explicitly acknowledge in a usage note that the broader use is considered improper in Hawai‘i.”


Though I wasn’t successful with getting the definition rewritten, the usage note is at least a nod to the positive change that has already taken place. As more people continue to use the word to mean the native people of these Islands, it could eventually mean a complete change to the definition. And if others are inspired to speak up when they see it being used incorrectly, it could come sooner than later.


The usage clarification will be in the next print edition of the Merriam-Webster dictionary.