What does it mean, anyway?
I was looking into the name "Hawai’i" to try and find its meaning, if there was one. I checked the Hawaiian Dictionary by Pukui and Elbert (1986). This is what they say:
Elsewhere in Polynesia, Hawai’i or a cognate is the name of the underworld or of the ancestral home, but in Hawai’i the name has no meaning.
However, in an interesting little book by Leinani Melville titled, Children of the Rainbow, Melville states that he was told by a Hawaiian elder fisherwoman named Ta Ruahine the following (almost oddly scientific) creation story which may give some clue to the name’s actual origin and meaning:
At commencement of the earth’s history this blazing globe, a rumbling, quivering, ball of fire, sprouted from the sun, containing all of its fertilizing elements. The spinning orb, screaming and crackling, raced through space whistling among the spheres, roaring in the wind, radiating light as it flashed through the night of its creation. It was directed to this dark abyss in the vast emptiness of space by the mind, the will, and the energy of [ke Akua] God. The fireball gradually slowed down, found anchorage in this pit of heaven which was destined to become its permanent home, and began revolving slowly in unending circular movements.
When the flaming globe found its orbit, lava, seething within the pumping bowels of its raging surface, attracted from the colder realms of outer space a blanket of clouds laden with moisture. The earth’s electrical magnetism caused a downpour of nectar from the firmament. Thus rain was born. Crystal raindrops cascaded in glistening sheets upon this jagged, treeless crater, drenched its raw plains and quenced its flames. The rains swept tempestuously on to bathe the expansive depths of the earth’s sizzling cradle. Thus the ocean was born from the water that washed clean this crater of heaven. And thus Havai’i received its name from the moisture which mercifully cooled the steaming terrain.
This apparently relates to the word hāwai, which literally means “to generate steam in an earth oven by pouring on water; to purify with water" (Pukui & Elbert 1986:62). The little particle i at the end means, among other things, "by means of." Thus, according to this story, the name Hawai’i apparently originates from hāwai + i = Hawai’i, or "by means of purifying with [rain] water." (With shortening of the long vowel, which can happen with compounds in Hawaiian, e.g., 'ōlelo, speak; mo’olelo, story).
By the way, as it's about time for me to get Kansas registration and license (since my California one expires next month), I'm hoping to get a personalized license plate, which in Kansas has a picture of a bison on it, and I want to put KAOLELO on it. This means "the language" in Hawaiian, ka + 'ōlelo. (Can't do the glottal stop or macron signs, but oh well.) I'm hoping nobody else in Kansas will have Hawaiian words on a bison license plate! (And, since front license plates are not required in Kansas, I'll leave my old California plate on it, lest anyone forget where I'm from!)
Melville, Leinani (1969). Children of the Rainbow: The Religion, Legends, and Gods of Pre-Christian Hawaii. Wheaton: The Theosophical Publishing House.
Pukui, M. and S. Elbert (1986). Hawaiian Dictionary. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.