Saturday, October 5, 2013


As of last Wednesday, teacher sports day is back! After over a month of wondering if our principal had finally done away with the weekly volleyball, soccer, or badminton games for the teachers at my school, I was pleased to receive a message from the PE teacher announcing pick-up volleyball at 4:30 in the gym.

Although my volleyball skills are rusty (oh, who am I kidding, they were never even greased), I can hold my own on the court. I run fours for whatever team I'm on -- a position I was never permitted to play in high school -- and my mediocre attacks have earned me the admiration of some of my colleagues. Even better, my skills improved a lot last year when we played every week. Needless to say, I love playing volleyball with the other teachers at my school. I also love that we order pizza, fried chicken, and beer after the game, and that some female teachers come to watch and cheer us on, but mostly come for the food. Mr. Pizza is growing on me.

Anyway, yesterday I noticed that one of the chemistry teachers kept saying "Glucose!" over and over again throughout the game. I thought that he might be smack talking a player on the other team, since he always called it out every time the other team missed the ball or made an error. When a particularly good serve wasn't returned: "Glucose!" When I spiked and the ball went through someone's hands: "Glucose!"

I was really amused by the nickname, and I tried to figure out which teacher on the other team it was aimed at. It must have been someone else in the chemistry department -- why else would they be called Glucose? At least two of the teachers on the other team were definitely not very experienced on the court, but neither was responding directly to the name, so I was left uncertain.

Then, the teachers reset the court for a game of foot volleyball (족구), and after making a fool of myself for one match, I sat out the next one and munched on some pizza. The chemistry teacher took my place and resumed his name-calling: "Glucose!" right after a serve. "Glucose!" when we scored a point on an error.

I turned to a physics teacher who was there for the pizza. "Teacher, who is Glucose?"
"What?" he looked at me quizzically.
"Glucose... what that teacher said. Who is it?"
"I don't understand."

Embarrassed, I waited for a pause in the game, and then I called out to the chemistry teacher himself. "Teacher, what is Glucose?"
"Glucose?" he said. "포도당."
"Oh..." He had literally translated glucose into Korean for me. "That's not what I meant," I thought.

The physics teacher turned to me. "Why did you want to know that, anyway?"
"No," I tried to explain, "the teacher was saying 'glucose' to someone on the other team... Glucose! Glucose! Who is it?"

Suddenly, a light bulb lit up in his head. "Oh... 굿코스 (goot-kohss)! Good course! Good shot!"
"What? Good course?"
"It means 'good shot'," he explained. "Wow, then that must be Konglish, right?"
"Yeah, I guess!" I replied. It all made sense: Glucose wasn't a person, I had merely misheard a bit of garbled English. "Good course" was his version of "good shot", and it wasn't directed at the other team, but at our own. The physics teacher found this whole thing very funny and made a point to tell the chemistry teacher that what he had thought was English was actually Konglish.

It reminded me of how some of the teachers had picked up my habit of shouting "Nice serve!" after every serve (even if it wasn't remotely nice), but since I didn't really enunciate and they didn't really speak English, they eventually turned it into "나이서브 (nai-seo-bu)!"

They also laughed at me every time I called for the ball, saying "Got it!" quickly and repeatedly, like a machine gun: "Gotitgotitgotitgotit!" But I haven't yet been able to switch over to what they say: "마이 (mai)!", which I assume comes from the word "mine".

Every time I play sports in Korea, whether it's soccer with my students, padminton with my dojang, or anything with my teachers, I'm constantly amused and intrigued by how English has loaned so many words to Korean athletic vernacular but has also watched them become unflatteringly repurposed by the phenomenon of Konglish. Off the top of my head, there's 아웃(이다), 플레이, 블랙홀, and, of course, 화이팅.

My friends who champion the cause of sports diplomacy assert that sports can unite people from different cultures in a way that language cannot. While I agree, I believe it's also worth noting that sports can rarely be played successfully without verbal communication, and when it comes to the language of sports, English has lived up to its reputation as the language of conquest (or the international language, if you prefer). But this is precisely why it tickles me so much that English's ruthless incursion into Korean athletics has been tripped up by the fact that the Korean language will do whatever the heck it wants with whatever words come its way from outside the peninsula, proper syntax and pronunciation be damned.

Long live Konglish! And long live teacher sports day!

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