the etymology of hapa

Language continually changes, evolves, and innovates. Since the millennium, terms such as selfie, photobomb, crowdfund, and dab entered the modern lexicon; nouns like friend, unlike and workshop became verbs (even as verbs such as like became nouns); semantic shifts of the words surfing, flame, bad, sick, tool, and literally assigned new and sometimes opposite meanings to existing words - all examples of what linguists call the etymological process of conversion.

The word hapa is the Hawaiian interpretation of the English word half. Much of its current usage derives from the phrase hapa haole, meaning half white. The phrase was originally coined by native Hawaiians to describe the mixed offspring resulting from encounters between islanders and White settlers. As migration continued between the islands and mainland, the word was brought back to the continent and re-borrowed into conventional English. In subsequent years, hapa (or Hapa) has come into popular usage away from the islands, most frequently embraced by Asian/Pacific Islander Americans of mixed descent.

Most people learned the word hapa through their respective communities and regional vernaculars, and some prefer to retain or even argue for the validity of their accustomed definition. Some individuals feel hapa refers to anyone who is mixed. Others feel it refers only to those who are part Kanaka Maoli (Hawaiian). Still others believe it refers specifically to people who are part Japanese and part White. Many simply consider it an acronym for Half Asian Pacific American. As language continually shifts, can each or perhaps all of these be valid? That is up to each individual.

The Hapa Project is first and foremost a project about identity, and identity is a unique and personal process. The Hapa Project defined hapa as being of partial Asian/Pacific Islander descent, but whether someone fit into a particular definition of hapa or not wasn't the point. Anyone who wanted to participate in the project was welcome. Because how each individual chooses to define a term - or define themselves - is a decision that is completely theirs. And for hundreds of thousands of multiracial API Americans, defining themselves as Hapa has meant recognition and inclusion for the first time.


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