About A Name: Koa

January 4, 2012 § 2 Comments

An acacia koa tree in Hawaii.

Today, a name from sunnier climes as we trudge through our North American winter. It’s no secret that, in general, Hawaiian or Polynesian names have a special place in the hearts of most English-speaking parents, even if they have no desire to use the names themselves. There’s an exotic and lovely quality to names like Leilani (means “heavenly blossoms” in Hawaiian, like those that make up traditional leis) or Iolana (“to soar like the hawk”), with that especially true of female names. But this year we saw the doors opened to the use of Hawaiian names on boys, who may or may not have an ounce of Hawaiian in their family tree.

This year, Lost star Evangeline Lilly and her Hawaiian boyfriend Norman Kali welcome a son named Kahekili (or perhaps just Hekili, it’s never been confirmed) outside in a thunderstorm when she gave birth this spring (Hekili is Hawaiian for “thunder,” Kahekili for “the thunder,” which was also the name of an ancient Maui chief), while Antonio Sabato, Jr. and his Hawaiian wife Cheryl Moana Marie welcomed a son they named Antonio Kamakanaalohamaikalani Harvey in May. (It means “beloved gift from the heavens,” and yes, it’s 22-letters long.) Former Cosby Show star Lisa Bonet and Conan the Barbarian and Game of Thrones star Jason Momoa (Hawaiian-born) also honoured his heritage in the names of their two kids – Lola Iolani, born in 2007, and Nakoa-Wolf Manakauapo Namakaeha, in late 2008. Nakoa means “warrior,” Namakaeha is also Jason’s middle name, while the elements that make up Manakauapo describe the conditions on the night he was born, much like Lilly’s little boy. Mana means “spirit,” kaua means “rain,” and po means “dark.”

The often overwhelming nature of Hawaiian names, due to their length and tough pronunciations despite our appreciation for the flowing look and feel of these names, could be why we’re seeing non-Hawaiian baby boys with the short, sweet, and simple Hawaiian name, Koa. No Doubt’s Tom Dumont and wife Mieke welcomed a son named Koa Thomas on February 19th – younger brother to Ace Joseph and Rio Atticus. Then just before Christmas, Irish pop star Kian Egan and his actress wife Jodi Albert also welcomed a son named Koa, saying they found the name in a baby book and “liked it.” Hawaiian-born competitive surfer Koa Smith celebrated his 17th birthday this past Monday!

Koa is Hawaiian for “strong, brave, fearless” and may also find favour with English parents because of it’s phonetic similarity to popular, biblical Noah. Similar Hawaiian name Kekoa literally means “the strong, brave, fearless,” but has been simplified to mean “warrior.” Koa is a nature name, too. The plentiful koa tree is the biggest tree on the islands that make up the state of Hawaii, reaching upwards of 10 feet in diameter, and several hundred feet in height. Koa trees have long, crescent-shaped leaves, but in the plant’s early stages it has dozens more tiny bud-shaped leaves on each branch. It isn’t usual in the plant world that shapes seem to almost grow into each other and transform as they age, and due to the size this tree can reach, seems particularly ironic that it’s earliest stages of biology qualify it as a member the pea family.

Koa wood is strong and resistant to salt water, and traditionally was used to make canoes by indigenous Hawaiians. Because of the size of a full grown koa tree, canoes could often be made simply by burning,  carving out and smoothing a whole trunk, much like Native Americans could do with cedar. Birchbark canoes, though, were sewn together with the split roots of a spruce tree.

Of particular value in Hawaii because it can be used to make guitars, handicrafts, and furniture, rangers at Hawaii’s numerous national parks are often tasked with protecting the vegetation from poachers.

I like Koa. But then, I can usually be pretty easily persuaded to have an affection for nature names. Still, this name has the ability to both stand out and blend in, on account of it’s flowing sound and being just three letters long. As for whether this name could eventually be overtaken by the girls, it’s possible, but for now parents are distracted with more distinctive fare like Makani (a unisex name, meaning “wind”) and Keala (“the pathway”).

PHOTO CREDIT: Joan H. (c) November 2011

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