Okay, here I am with another bit of did-you-really-want-to-know trivia. I’ve found the smattering of Hawaiian I’ve encountered to be quite interesting, mostly because I sometimes think the Islands might have been originally inhabited by the Welsh or Germans. The languages of all three people often seem to go out of their way to create words that are longer than they need to be and therefore difficult for anyone who doesn’t speak the language not only to pronounce but also to hope to ever remember. For instance, Rindfleischetikettierung is German for beef labeling. Cyfrwngddarostynedigaeth means intercession in Welsh. And Humuhumunukunukuapua’a is the state fish of Hawaii. It’s what we know of as either the Reef Triggerfish or the Lagoon Triggerfish, although the translation of humuhumunukunukuapua’a is far more descriptive: “triggerfish with a snout like a pig.” The reef triggerfish (Rhinecanthus rectangulus), is also known as the rectangular triggerfish.
There is a chance that somewhere in your life you sang the song, “My Little Grass Shack in Kealakekua Hawaiian.” and are therefore familiar with the line, ” . . .where the humuhumunukunukuāpuaʻa go swimming by,” but you probably had no idea what you were singing about.
Triggerfish can quickly change their coloration, sometimes fading to a drab gray when they are sleeping or threatened. Their colors tend to be the most vivid when the fish are healthy and unthreatened by their surroundings. They can bite, too. Triggerfish have blue teeth that are set close together inside their chubby little mouths. The fish can be a nasty thing, though. They have been known to bite and attack swimmers who pass too close, sometimes leaving noticeable marks often around the ankles. Maybe they bite because people have been known to catch them and eat them. I’m told they’re tasty little fish.
If you’d like to toss humuhumunukunukuāpuaʻa into a conversation today, for instance, “this sandwich tastes a bit like humuhumunukunukuāpuaʻa” or “Something in here smells like five-day old humuhumunukunukuāpuaʻa.” The word is pronounced ˈhumuˈhumuˈnukuˈnukuˈwaːpuˈwɐʔə. I found that it starts to roll off the tongue nicely, but as I got near the end of it my lips tended to get in the way.
Perhaps even Hawaiians have trouble with the word, perhaps it simply takes too darn long to order it grilled, so they often refer to the Reef Triggerfish as simply humuhumu.