Aloha! If you’ve heard the word “popolo” used in Hawaii and wondered what it means, you’ve come to the right place. We’re going to dive deep into the history and meaning of this Hawaiian slang term so you can understand exactly what it signifies.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: Popolo is a Hawaiian slang term that refers to a poor or homeless person, often someone who engages in petty crime or drug use. It can be used in both a descriptive and derogatory way.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore the linguistic origins of popolo, look at how and when it emerged as a slang term in Hawaii, examine various definitions and connotations, and provide examples of its usage in Hawaiian culture. By the end, you’ll be an expert on the meaning and nuances of this unique Hawaii pidgin word!

The Etymology and Literal Meaning of Popolo

Origins in the Hawaiian Word Popolo

The word “Popolo” has its origins in the Hawaiian language. In Hawaiian culture, language holds deep significance and reflects the rich history and traditions of the islands. The word “Popolo” is derived from the Hawaiian plant species called “Solanum nigrum,” which is commonly known as “black nightshade” in English. The plant itself has small, dark purple berries that resemble blackberries.

Literal Translation as “Nightshade”

When translated literally, “Popolo” means “nightshade” in English. The name “nightshade” refers to a group of plants, including Solanum nigrum, which are known for their dark berries. While the literal translation might suggest a simple botanical reference, the word “Popolo” carries deeper cultural connotations in Hawaiian society.

Extension to Undesirable People

Interestingly, the term “Popolo” has also been extended in Hawaiian language to refer to people who are considered undesirable or of lower social standing. This extension of meaning reflects the complex relationship between language and culture. It is important to note that the usage of the term in this context can be considered derogatory and should be avoided to promote inclusivity and respect for all individuals.

When and How Popolo Entered Hawaiian Slang

The word “popolo” has a rich history in Hawaiian slang, with its origins dating back to the early 20th century. It is believed to have entered the local lexicon during a period of cultural exchange and influence between Hawaii and the mainland United States.

Emergence in the Early 20th Century

During the early 1900s, Hawaii experienced a surge in immigration from various countries, including the Philippines, China, Japan, and Portugal. This influx of diverse cultures and languages contributed to the development of a unique creole language known as Hawaii Pidgin. In this linguistic melting pot, the word “popolo” emerged as a term used to describe someone who was considered an outsider or a social outcast.

Influence from the English Term “Tramp”

Interestingly, the origin of the Hawaiian word “popolo” can be traced back to the English term “tramp.” The term “tramp” was commonly used in Hawaii during the early 20th century to refer to someone who was homeless or without a permanent residence. Over time, the term evolved and transformed into “popolo,” taking on a slightly different connotation within the local Hawaiian community.

The adoption of the word “popolo” can be seen as a testament to the adaptability and creativity of the Hawaiian people. They took an English word and molded it to fit their own unique cultural context, resulting in the creation of a distinct Hawaiian slang term.

Inclusion in Hawaii Pidgin Lexicon

Today, “popolo” is firmly ingrained in the Hawaii Pidgin lexicon. It is used to describe someone who is perceived as unkempt, disheveled, or unconventional in appearance or behavior. However, it’s important to note that the connotations of the word have evolved over time, and it is now used in a more light-hearted and affectionate manner.

The inclusion of “popolo” in the Hawaii Pidgin lexicon is a testament to the ongoing evolution of language and the ability of communities to shape and redefine words to suit their own needs and experiences.

Common Definitions and Connotations of Popolo

The Hawaiian word “popolo” has a rich history and its meaning has evolved over time. It is important to note that the word can have different connotations depending on the context in which it is used. Let’s explore some of the common definitions and associations of popolo.

A Homeless, Jobless, or Transient Person

One of the common definitions of popolo is a term used to describe a homeless, jobless, or transient person in Hawaiian culture. This usage originated from the fact that some individuals who found themselves in difficult circumstances would resort to living off the land, relying on the abundant resources of the islands. While this definition may have been more prevalent in the past, it is important to note that it is not the only meaning associated with popolo.

Associations with Criminality and Drug Use

Another connotation of popolo is its association with criminality and drug use. However, it is crucial to approach this definition with caution, as it is based on stereotypes and may perpetuate negative biases. It is essential to recognize that not all individuals who may be referred to as popolo are involved in illegal activities or substance abuse. It is important to treat each person as an individual and not make assumptions based on labels.

Derogatory vs Descriptive Usages

The usage of popolo can be both derogatory and descriptive, depending on the intention behind its usage. When used derogatorily, it can be a term of disrespect and discrimination towards individuals who may be marginalized or facing challenging circumstances. On the other hand, when used in a descriptive manner, it can simply refer to someone’s transient or homeless status without intending to demean or stigmatize them. It is crucial to be mindful of the impact our words can have and strive for empathy and understanding when discussing individuals who may be referred to as popolo.

Examples of Popolo Usage in Hawaiian Culture

Appearances in Hawaiian Music and Media

The word “popolo” holds significant cultural value in Hawaii and can be found prominently in various forms of Hawaiian music and media. In traditional Hawaiian songs, popolo is often referenced as a symbol of love and longing. It is used to express deep emotions and the beauty of the Hawaiian landscape. Artists like Israel Kamakawiwo╩╗ole and Keali╩╗i Reichel have incorporated the word popolo into their songs, showcasing its importance in preserving Hawaiian language and culture.

As a Self-Referential Term Among Youth

Among the younger generation in Hawaii, popolo has taken on a self-referential meaning. It is commonly used as a slang term to describe someone with a dark complexion. While some may view this usage as derogatory, it is important to note that language evolves over time and can be reclaimed by different communities. The use of popolo among Hawaiian youth can be seen as a way to embrace and celebrate their heritage, highlighting the diverse range of skin tones within the Hawaiian community.

Shifting Attitudes Towards Popolos

Over the years, attitudes towards the term popolo have evolved. Historically, the word was used in a derogatory manner to describe people of African or mixed African descent. However, there has been a shift in recent years towards reclaiming and celebrating the term. Organizations and individuals in Hawaii are actively working to promote inclusivity and respect for all cultures. This includes recognizing the significance of popolo as a part of Hawaii’s rich cultural tapestry and challenging negative stereotypes associated with the term.

The Enduring Relevance of the Term Popolo

The Hawaiian word “popolo” holds a significant place in the cultural and botanical history of Hawaii. This term refers to a small, dark purple or black fruit that grows on a native shrub known as the Solanum americanum. The popolo fruit has been used by Native Hawaiians for centuries as both a food source and a medicinal plant.

Ancient Uses of Popolo

Native Hawaiians traditionally harvested and consumed popolo fruits, incorporating them into various dishes such as jams, jellies, and sauces. The berries were prized for their unique flavor, which is described as both tart and sweet. Additionally, the leaves and stems of the popolo plant were used to make herbal teas and poultices to treat various ailments.

Popolo was not only valued for its culinary and medicinal uses but also held spiritual significance in Hawaiian culture. It was believed that the plant possessed protective and healing properties, and its fruits were often used in rituals and ceremonies.

Modern Applications and Conservation Efforts

Today, the term popolo continues to be used to refer to both the plant and its fruit, emphasizing the enduring relevance of this traditional Hawaiian word. While the cultural significance of popolo remains strong, the plant itself faces challenges due to habitat loss and invasive species.

Conservation efforts are being made to protect and restore populations of popolo in its native habitat. Organizations such as the Hawai’i Department of Land and Natural Resources and the National Tropical Botanical Garden are working to preserve the biodiversity of Hawaiian plants, including popolo.


The Hawaiian slang word popolo has a fascinating history and evolution within the islands’ culture and language. Understanding its origins in the Hawaiian term for nightshade plants, its emergence as a descriptor for destitute individuals in the early 1900s, and its sometimes derogatory but also self-referential uses today provides valuable insight into Hawaii’s dynamic pidgin vernacular.

While some may see popolo as an outdated or offensive term, it remains a unique word that captures a specific local archetype. Used mindfully, it connects us to Hawaii’s past and the island experience. Now whenever you hear the word popolo, you can appreciate its rich linguistic and cultural meaning in Hawaii. Aloha!

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