Etymology of Luau

When you hear the word luau, what do you think? A Hawaiian feast with poi, kalua pig, poke, lomi salmon, opihi, haupia, and tropical fruits? An imu (underground oven) cooking a pig? Hula dancers?

The Hawaiian feast wasn’t always called a luau and used to be called pa‘ina or ‘aha‘aina. Luau actually originally referred to the main dish, chicken baked in coconut milk with taro.

According to Mary Kawena Pukui and Samuel H. Elberts, the first known recorded mention of the word “luau” as a feast is in a 1856 issue of the Pacific Commercial Advertiser. However, a search on Chronicling America shows the Polynesian mentioning “luau” before the PCA does in its first issue.

The first few posts in the Polynesian use luau to the manner of cooking meat in an underground oven:

“Two long tables set out in a manner that might excite envy in a Apicius. Profusion of every luxury the Islands afford. Luaued dog included, (numbers by the way, went the whole hog upon this national dish.)

By the way, the ancient Hawaiians did eat poi dogs.

“The meats were served after that delicious and peculiarly native fashion Luau-ed (cooked under ground with greens) and was capitally done up, in fact the whole received ample justice.”

In this utterance, the Polynesian seems to use luau to refer to the dish:

“Throughout the district, young and old, grave and gay, ‘native to the manor born’ or ‘adopted scions of a foreign stock,’ all seemed to join heartily in a celebration of the nation’s holiday, and the poorest family indulged on that day, in some little nicety a luau, or a more bountiful supply of fish and poi, or other delicacies.”

Eventually, the Polynesian uses “luau” to refer to the Hawaiian feast: “Besides the more public exercises of the day, there was much private feasting among the Hawaiians, and signals for a luau were observable all over town and through the vallies. … The luau at Capt. Adams’ given by Mechanic Fire Company No. 2, to their officers, and many invited guests, went off with much spirit and satisfaction and was highly creditable to the Committee of Arrangements.”

In its first issue, the PCA reported the marriage between Emma Rooke and King Kamehameha IV and mentioned their luau as a Hawaiian feast:

“On the following day the palace grounds thrown open to the native population, largely of whom visited the King and Queen, and … a luau (or native feast,) prepared for them was also served up at the residence of Dr. …”

– Alice Kim


Polynesian, November 28, 1840, Page 99, Image 3

Polynesian, July 12, 1851, Page 34, Image 2

Polynesian, August 16, 1851, Page 54, Image 2

Polynesian, August 05, 1854, Page 50, Image 2

“Marriage of His Majesty Kamehameha IV”
Pacific commercial advertiser, July 2, 1856, Image 2


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