What's Correct In Hawaii: Mainland Or Continent, Neighbor Or Outer-Island?

What’s Correct In Hawaii: Mainland Or Continent, Neighbor Or Outer-Island?

Language and Hawaii are two of our passions at Beat of Hawaii. Not only are we language enthusiasts all, but chief editor Rob has degrees in both English and education while Jeff and Collin both love language albeit from a less lofty and more pragmatic viewpoint. A recent comment we received caused us to revisit an old topic about how we here in Hawaii travel, including you all, speak about the other 48 states.

For all the decades editor Jeff has been in Hawaii, he’s always referred to the 48 as the Mainland. And that’s the word that we all hear used the most by far, whether it be by visitors or residents. But the comment we received said it is now politically correct to use the term Continent instead. Fascinating.

The term continent seems bespoke if you will, harkens back to a time long ago.

Apparently, that term has for some years now been preferred by Native Hawaiians. Why?

While both terms relate to the geographic situation between Hawaii and the 48-states, Mainland also points to a political relationship between the two. It is believed by some that Mainland implies that the Hawaiian Islands are somehow less than the “Main” land.

While some had thought years ago that the term Continent would become more widely used, we don’t see that as having happened. Perhaps it is used more so by those who claim the U.S.’s role in Hawaii is illegitimate.

US Government chimes in on Content vs. Mainland.

In 1959, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names defined the continental United States as the 49 States other than Hawaii. They said, “Whenever the phrase ‘continental United States’ is used in any law of the United States enacted after the date of enactment of this Act [June 25, 1959], it shall mean the 49 States on the North American Continent and the District of Columbia, unless otherwise expressly provided.”

“The Contiguous United States.”

Another less-used term that is only inclusive of the 48 states that touch, and excludes both Alaska and Hawaii. The phrase will be familiar to many Hawaii residents, often seen preceded by the words “Does not ship outside of…”

Another term some have questioned – neighbor island or outer island?

For as many years (decades) as we can recall, we’ve always used the term neighbor island when discussing everything beyond or should we say other than, Oahu. Some felt that saying outer island was a form of put-down, implying that the other islands are somehow less important than Oahu. And honestly, some people do have that sense, as we’ve been told directly. Oahu residents may feel that because they represent more than 3/4 of the state’s population, they are the main deal. But nonetheless, we at Beat of Hawaii prefer “Neighbor Island,” as our own style.

So, what’s your take on the term “Continent” vs. “Mainland.” We’re open to your suggestions and to changing which terms we rely on most. In any event, this has the potential for stimulating some fascinating conversations.

One question struck us. If we referred to those from the 48-states as mainlanders, would we instead call them continentals?

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27 thoughts on “What’s Correct In Hawaii: Mainland Or Continent, Neighbor Or Outer-Island?”

  1. To me, “the continent” refers to Europe.

    I understand the sentiment of getting away from the mainland, but I think it should be something more specific, like the contextual

  2. Historically, “the continent” refers to Europe. This also may be a bit fraught with ethno-centrism, but to me it’s confusing to hear the contiguous US referred to as “the continent”.

    I understand the sentiment of getting away from the term “mainland,” but I think it should be something more specific, like the continental US or the contiguous US

  3. From the poem “To Island” by the late Honolulu-born Fiji-raised Pacific Island educator, Teresia K. Teaiwa:

    “Shall we make ‘island’ a verb?
    …Let us ‘island’ the world…
    Let us teach the inhabitants of planet earth how to behave as if we were all living on islands.
    For what is earth but an island in our solar system?
    …Continents do not exist, metaphysically speaking.
    It is islands all the way up, islands all the way down.
    Islands to the right of us, islands to the left…
    But let us also make ‘island’ a verb.
    It is a way of living that could save our lives.”

    My island, O’ahu is now my main land. I studied on the American and European continents, and I think it’s ok to still refer to them as continents. However, reading this poem in its entirety blew my mind. Pangea was the “mainland,” and everything else now is just islands. I like how native people of the continental US refer to it as Turtle Island.

      1. Meh, I will continue to use mainland and outer islands. I had a Big Island coworker correct me once about saying outer islands or other islands, saying, ‘It’s called neighbor islands, not outer islands,’ and I looked at him blankly. I always looked at it, from being from Oahu, that it was a geographically-related reference, that I am meaning I am here on Oahu, and the other islands are the ones in an outward radius from us. Never said it in a way that I was inwardly impling that the other islands are lesser. Mainland, always looked at it like its just a main land mass that’s near us, not that it’s terminology indicates lesser of Hawaii. I can understand political correctness, but I also think it’s gotten way out of hand lately.

  4. I’m fascinated by what the characteristics of an island suggest either being “in” it or “on” it. Maui? Iceland? Ireland? Catalina? Key West?

  5. Google search reveals “Which continent does Hawaii belong to? None. Hawaii is politically part of North America, but geographically it is not part of any continent.” So continent it is for me then.

  6. Mainland…it’s been called that for years and everyone knows what that means. There are the few that want to change things by looking way too deeply and making a big deal out of nothing. There is a lot of good with history and it seems sad to change words for the few who want that change.

  7. I don’t think “continent” is accurate for the 48 contiguous states, mostly because of the Very common and acceptance of the term for Continental Europe. I have no preference here, but say this for sake of easy understanding. Our ohana has always called each island by name, in spite of living mostly on Oahu, but temporarily on Kauai and The Big Island, mainly for ease of understanding.

    1. Also the continent of North America includes Mexico and all the countries in South America. The 48 United States are not a continent but part of the North American continent.

      1. But when you’re flying from somewhere that is not on any continent (Hawaiʻi)… and you land in say…LA or Seattle or even Mexico City or Vancouver… welcome to the continent seems appropriate.

  8. On the Big Island “Mainland” is entirely ubiquitous when referring to the mainland. I’ve also enjoyed the term “on-island” when distinguishing between whether one is on the mainland or on-island.

  9. I’ve always been of the mind my 22 years liking on Kaua’i that it’s respectful to take the lead from the indigenous culture. So that would be “continental”. I think if new residents have Aloha in their heart, we would each take a month’s worth of Hawaiian culture classes upon moving here. It is just arrogant for “Continentals” moving here with millions to retire to feel entitled to erect property fences and attitudes of privilege /superiority.

    And this comes from a white resident who moved here 22 years ago. (And I did put my money where my mouth is and have studied hula and the language over that time. )


    1. Hi Nancy.

      Nice hearing from you, and thanks for almost 100 prior comments! Others may go a different direction, but we’d say we are in Hawaii, but on the Big Island, Kauai or Oahu. We’d say we are in Honolulu, however, but on Oahu.


      1. Thanks for your response. I try to say I am on Maui but in Lahaina for example so I guess I’m doing it right.
        You’re welcome for my almost 100 comments. I read BOH everyday!

    2. I ordered License plate frames off of E-Bay that said “I’D Rather Be In Maui ” . I contacted the merchant and asked if they could be changed to “On Maui ” and they complied. I made the same argument to them about being “ON” and Island. But I guess they ignored me and they are still making them “IN Maui “. You just can’t get through to some people. But they are great frames and ordered several for our whole families fleet of cars. Thanks for what you do .

  10. Neighbor Island? Not Inter-island??? Or how about just Oahu or Honolulu, Maui, Big Island like “most” locals say???
    Always…Mainland…Never Continent!
    Just like what HAL stood for in the 1940’s or 1950’s…Hawaiian Always Late.
    Now that is the Real local kind talk.
    But TU BOH for trying your best.

    1. I lived off and on in ‘da Islands beginning in the ’50s … and what you said is entirely correct. Thanks for setting it straight.

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