So… what do you think is better for a woman to wear in a hot climate? Cut-offs or a long, loose dress? Daisy Dukes or a Mother Hubbard? Well, when the missionaries hit the Polynesian islands in the 19th century, they found that the women wore less than the missionaries felt was modest. So they had them wear long, loose dresses with long sleeves and high necklines – what have come to be called Mother Hubbard dresses. The women of Hawai‘i felt that these dresses would be more comfortable with a little less fabric, and so they cut them – no flounces at the bottom, no lace collar at the top, and short sleeves; the dresses hang loosely from the shoulders. They called them “cut off” – a word which in Hawai‘ian is not cut off but reduplicated, as many Polynesian words are: mu‘umu‘u.
Now, to be sure, a muumuu is not a sort of dress to make the average man say “mmmm” or “oooo” or get a catch in his throat. It’s more the sort of thing for his mama. Many women don’t fancy it so much either – it’s the kind of thing of which my wife would say “It makes me look like a moo-moo” (i.e., bovine – although in reality no matter what she wears she looks divine).
But it sure is comfortable and relaxed. And, typically, very colourful. It’s tropical loungewear for people who really don’t want to have to worry about, well, much of anything. Kick back. Have a Chi Chi (that’s nothing chi-chi; it’s a piña colada made with vodka). It’s fitting enough that the pronunciation has eased off, too: no glottal stops (as we use in English uh-oh, and as in Hawai‘i they say between the final two i’s of the state name); what was four syllables has become two, and in English the glottal stop marks – not apostrophes but opening single quotes – have been dropped. You can discern a variety of shapes in the resulting muumuu: the uu’s may be upside-down m’s; they may be loose shapes of the body hanging in the dress’s drapery; the alternation between m and uu might bring to mind the swaying of a hula dance.
And the sound of the word? The soft murmur of the breeze in the palm trees, perhaps? The wash of the waves, beneath which swim the mahimahi, the humuhumunukunukuapua‘a, and the lauwiliwilinukunuku‘oi‘oi? Or, well, the cattle that are herded by ranchers on the island of Hawai‘i, perhaps – they were introduced by Captain George Vancouver in 1793 and there’s a pretty big industry there now.