Saturday, November 9, 2013

Korean Words I Don't Know Why I Know

Simon from Omniglot Blog recently posted about unusual words or phrases one might learn in a foreign language. In his case, he said, "I forgot the elephant!" and realized upon later reflection that it was a somewhat odd combination of words. Yet the words were perfect for the situation.

I think it's both fun and useful to learn odd vocabulary words in a target language, even when you're first studying it. When I tutor my taekgyeon teacher in English, I often have to come up with lists of words with similar spellings for pronunciation practice. Once, I found myself dictating: "Each, teach, teacher, read, lead, meat, heat, beat... beaver." Now, I don't think 관장님 will ever encounter the word "beaver" in his Master's course, but who knows when it will come in handy for him?

In the same way, I have accumulated a few dozen truly random vocabulary words over the past two years of studying Korean. I don't always remember them, but I keep them in my Anki flashcard deck just for the heck of it. And you know what? Sometimes I find myself in a situation where I need them, and then, if I can get the timing right, the result is a Korean giving me the "Where the heck did you learn that?" look. I love it.

So here's a list of a few oddball words I've picked up in Korean. I do, of course, encourage you to add them to your flash card decks. ;)

배신자 - traitor
I first encountered the word in 광장시장 in Seoul last winter, where overwhelmed shoppers are courted by four or five intensely enthusiastic shopkeepers simultaneously, making it hard to actually buy anything. I spent a while browsing clothes in one man's stall, but eventually bought a shirt someplace else. The guy jokingly called me a 배신자, which I looked up and then stored in my back pocket for months. Last Friday at taekgyeon class, we were playing indoor soccer, and one of my teammates accidentally scored an own goal. I called him a 배신자, everyone laughed, and my inner nerd rejoiced!

쌍거풀 - double eyelids
So many of my non-Asian friends have no idea what double eyelids are. Since I grew up in a largely Asian-American community, I'm well aware that some people have single eyelids and others have double eyelids. Unfortunately, there's a pretty strongly-held standard of beauty that favors double over single. You can't be in Korea for very long without seeing advertisements for a quick and cheap plastic surgery procedure that turns a single eyelid into a double one, thus this word isn't really all that esoteric.

단풍 - leaves' changing colors in autumn
My host mother taught me this word last year, highlighting it when we went on a trip to a temple to see the beautiful foliage. I rarely encounter it nine months out of the year, but now that it's autumn once more, I'm reminded of 단풍 every day.

시루떡 - steamed rice cake
A word I learned from my taekgyeon master. He used it as a metaphor for being exhausted: "난 시구떡 됬어요!" He meant to express that his muscles had turned into jelly, or something like that. It was pretty memorable, and I stored it in my flashcards. But when I tried to use the expression in a journal entry on lang-8, another Korean remarked that he'd never heard it before and that it sounded really creative, albeit original.

초딩 - adult who behaves like a child
Another gem from my host mother; too bad I can't remember to whom she was referring when she taught me this. I haven't yet found any reason to call someone else a 초딩, but I really can't wait to do so!

외모지상주의 - lookism
I hadn't encountered the term "lookism" before seeing it as the provided translation for this phrase, but it makes sense. Like classism or racism, lookism is discrimination based on one's appearance, and it is rampant (or should I just say "standard"?) in both Korea and the US. In Korea, it is customary to attach your photo to job and university applications, which is mostly unheard of in the US; I'm afraid it gives Koreans just one more reason to worry about their appearance. Why can't skill alone be the deciding factor for hireability? I talked with my students about this in class once. We were brainstorming "problems in Korean society", and one student was trying to describe the over-emphasis on appearance. I dropped 외모지상주의 to make sure I was on the same page as him, and his reaction was, "Yeah! ... Wait, how did you know that?"

가부장제 - patriarchy
I like to throw this into conversation with my female students, who are outnumbered by the males at my school by a 3:1 ratio. Down with gender stereotypes and male domination in Korean society!, I tell them. But I think the most productive opportunity I took to put this random word to use was when I was arguing with a Korean friend about, well, "reverse sexism". He was complaining that it was really hard to be a Korean male these days, since they were all expected to make enough money to buy a house before proposing, and Korean women didn't have to worry about climbing the corporate ladder since they could just hop off and marry some rich dude whenever they wanted, and how come military service wasn't required for women, etc. I tried to summarize my counter-argument with one word: It's the 가부장제! But I ended up having to further explain how rigid gender roles aren't good for any gender, but patriarchy is inherently oppressive toward women, and, well, you should just stop complaining, dude.

비린내 - fishy smell
Picked up from my host father, either when we went fishing together or maybe when he was cooking some sort of seafood once. I really dislike 비린내, and it was unfortunate that last week's Bike Party route took us behind the famous Masan Fish Market. We rode past the docks and through a cloud of 비린내 that almost had me gagging.

등나무 - wisteria
I also learned this from my host father when we went on a walk to visit his childhood elementary school in Daegu. Months later, I identified some wisteria by the Provincial Education Office building, and my co-worker who was with me was nearly struck dumb with amazement, as if knowing the name of a somewhat obscure plant made me a linguistic genius or something. Well, I'll just admit that the wisteria is one of my favorite flowers, so it's not too surprising that I'd remember it, right?

That's all for now. These days, I have my students write daily journals, and sometimes they'll throw in a Korean word or two that they don't know how to translate. I've been adding all of these random words to my vocabulary as well, and I think I can make a part 2 for this post once I have enough! The sad part is that my Korean self-study has been going rather poorly overall since October. I blame grad school applications, which are taking up all my spare time. The first is due in just three weeks, so I'm getting kind of nervous! I'll redouble my language study efforts in January.


  1. Randomly stumbled across this while googling "외모지상주의"! (Long story.) You probably don't remember me, but I was an ETA renewee last year -- good to see people are keeping their blogs nice and updated!

    PS. You probably have figured this out by now, but 초딩 is the shortened slang version of 초등학생, 중딩 is the same for 중학생, and 고딩 is the same for... 고등학생! (ㅋㅋㅋ) Obviously they are used to tease people who are acting younger than their ages, but they have literal meanings, too! My 고딩s, of course, hated it whenever I called them 초딩s.

    Good stuff. Fun post!

    1. Hi Andrea! Thanks for the Korean lesson -- I actually didn't know that about the 준말 for 초딩. It's good to know. Thanks for reading! :)

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