Friday, May 23, 2014

A Human Zoo - Animal Idioms in Korean and English

This week, I taught my students a few idioms that involve animals. Earlier this semester, a student had expressed the hope that we could do some drawing activities in class, so I gave each of them an animal and a marker, and we played pictionary. The results were hilarious, and the student who got her wish was literally bent over double in laughter as her friends drew what I suppose were meant to be cats... or were they tigers? Bears? Goats?

Unfortunately, I didn't take any photos. On the bright side, as I was checking their journals later, I found that some students had not only written down the English definitions of the idioms that I'd provided, they also jotted down rough translations in Korean. I went ahead and added all of them to my own vocabulary list:

big fish in a small pond - 우물 안 개구리
The Korean version of this idiom, which refers to someone important in a relatively small sphere of influence, is "우물 안 개구리는 바다를 모른다", which translates to: "The frog in the well knows nothing of the ocean." One of my students, HS, proudly asserted that he was a big fish, but his face fell when I told him that we were currently swimming in a very small pond.

black sheep - 이단아
이단 appears to mean a sort of rebel or maverick, and 아 means child, so although there is no Korean version of this idiom that means a person who is radically (and often problematically) different from their group, the image of a "maverick child" is just as memorable, I think.

bookworm - 책벌레
This one was extremely easy to guess. TG drew a box on the board and then a striped oval inside of it. Since 책 (book) 벌레 (bug) is a direct translation from English, it was also simple to understand. As it turns out, avid readers are not the only kind of people who can be described with a Korean idiom that references bugs. (Keep reading!)

copycat - 흉내쟁이
I got this translation from the dictionary; the students didn't write down any translations, either because it was easy enough to understand or because they were too busy laughing their heads off at the picture their classmate tried to draw. It appeared to be an anthropomorphized Doraemon: that is, the cartoon cat with hair and glasses, wearing human clothes. Anyway, 흉내 means "impersonation" and 쟁이 is a casual suffix that refers to a person who does a certain action.

dark horse - 다크호스
If you can't read Korean, the above phrase is a transliteration: da-kh ho-ss. The concept is evidently familiar in Korea. I wonder if they've seen Katy Perry's new music video?

eager beaver - 일벌레
I gave myself the responsibility of trying to draw this one, and it was difficult because few of my students knew what a beaver was (in Korean, it's 비버, another transliteration). Anyway, this idiom for an overly enthusiastic worker is called 일벌레 in Korean. You can see the word "bug" used again; a "work bug" is how they refer to workaholics, but I think it has a more negative connotation than eager beaver.

lone wolf - 외톨이 늑대
YH wrote in his notes that lone wolf was "외로운 늑대" -- a lonely wolf. The dictionary's translation is more accurate, I believe: 외톨이 means "lone" in the manner of choosing to be alone. There's a nuanced difference. But of course, in Korea, everyone assumes that if you are by yourself, then you are lonely. Single people and loners can never catch a break here!

scapegoat - 희생양
I had a lot of trouble explaining this one. Even a brief summary of the Bible story associated with this idiom didn't make much sense. I told him that a scapegoat is a person who takes the blame or punishment for someone else, sort of like if YH illicitly ordered fried chicken from his dorm room and got caught, but somehow NH was punished for it. Though I'm not sure if that's ever happened, NH is definitely the scapegoat of his class!

social butterfly - 외향적
First of all, JK's drawing for this was excellent: a simple butterfly outline plus the square Facebook icon. Too clever! 외향적 is actually the word for "extroverted" in Korean; I couldn't find the Korean version of the idiom that means a person who loves socializing and meeting new people. It surprised me which students considered themselves to be extroverted in my class. Rather than social butterflies, I might have thought of them as shrinking violets. But that just goes to show how much there is to my students that I have yet to discover!

tiger parent - 타이거맘
This idiom also resulted in a fun drawing: JM took his sweet time in creating a caricature of an anthropomorphized tiger, complete with khakis and briefcase. The idea of a "tiger mom" (which is what the Korean phrase says: ta-i-guh mam) is obviously very well known here. You could argue that Asian countries are where tiger parents originated, thanks to a certain Yale professor's infamous manifesto. I'm curious if there's an older, purely Korean idiom that refers to this kind of charater, though, because Koreans have been hell-bent on education for decades.

That's it for the ten animal idioms and their Korean versions! Can you suggest any other interesting idioms, in English or in Korean, that my students and I should know?


  1. The Chinese equivalent to the first one regarding the frog is 井底之蛙, which talks about a frog who rules a well thinking he's a "big shot" until he meets a turtle who talks to him about the world outside the well.

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