Learning a foreign language is virtually the same as learning its culture. Some expressions carry meanings that only people with a strong grip on the culture can understand. I will list Korean expressions that have other connotations rather than their literal meaning, hopefully as plain and yet comprehensive as possible. These are phrases and idioms that we Koreans do use in real life.
I hope this helps you understand Korean culture more and enjoy Korean dramas or Kpop. If you have any Korean expressions that are confusing or hard to guess, leave a comment below or send me a message. I will add it to this list.
List of Korean Expressions
- Apeun Songarak, A Finger That Hurts (아픈 손가락)
- Hands are Spicy? Soni Maepda (손이 맵다)
- Seonbul (선불)
- Kkotsaemchuwi (꽃샘추위)
- Jayeonsan (자연산) at Korean Seafood Restaurants
- Goguma & Saida (고구마 & 사이다)
- Bumeok or Jjikmeok (부먹 또는 찍먹)
- Mapjjiri (맵찔이)
- Eonje guksu meokeoyo? (언제 국수 먹어요?)
- Gwiga yalbda, Have thin ears (귀가 얇다)
Apeun Songarak (아픈 손가락), A Finger That Hurts
아픈 손가락 /a-peun son-ga-rak/ literally means a finger that hurts. 아프다 /a-peu-da/ means hurting or painful and 손가락 /son-ga-rak/ means a finger. This originally means a daughter or a son who hasn’t been as successful as other children or who has some issues in their lives, so parents feel bad and care more about her or him. Thus, he or she becomes a hurting finger to parents. It can be used in other situations like with a student to a teacher, a teammate to other members, etc. You can use it in a sentence like “막내가 내 아픈 손가락이야.” /Maknaega nae apeun songarakiya/ I feel bad for my youngest so I care more about her/him.
Soni maepda (손이 맵다), are hands spicy??
손이 맵다 /son-i maep-da/. 손 /son/ means a hand (or hands) and 맵다 /maep-da/ means something tastes spicy or hot. So its literal meaning would be a hand is spicy, which sounds quite horrible and you may even think of cannibals. Fortunately, it doesn’t mean anything related to eating a hand. It means someone’s touching (or hitting) hurts others although the person doesn’t think he or she touches others so hard.
You probably know someone who has a habit of hitting someone next while laughing hard, hitting others to get attention, or hitting someone to stop them from doing something. In all these situations, the person doesn’t intend to “hit” others. It would be more like touching but a bit harder.
Now, let’s say you hit your friend with your palm in one of the situations above. Your friend says it hurts although you don’t hit him hard. In this situation, your friend can say, “야, 너 손 맵다 /ya, neo son maep-da./”
What is seonbul (선불)?
When you travel to foreign countries, one thing you should know about is how to pay for things, especially at restaurants. For example, you may wonder if you need to pay tips or if you have to pay only cash. By the way, in South Korea, you don’t pay tips at restaurants.
Among these questions, one frequently asked would be when you need to pay. At some restaurants or food vendors, you could see the sign saying “계산은 선불입니다” or “선불입니다.” 선불 /seon-bul/ means that you pay first or in advance. 계산 /gye-san/ literally means a calculation, but it means a payment in many situations. So, “계산은 선불입니다 /gye-san-eun seon-bul-im-ni-da/” means that “please, pay first.” You may see this expression at other stores or places as well. You can use 계산 in a sentence like “계산 먼저할게요 /gye-san meon-jeo-hal-gye-yo/,” which means “I’ll pay first.”
What is kkotsaemchuwi (꽃샘추위)?
꽃샘추위 (kkotsaemchuwi) is a spring cold snap. This is a phenomenon in which sudden cold weather comes back after a temperature goes up to the normal spring level. It usually happens between March and early April.
The name is translated as “cold weather to be jealous of spring flowers.” 꽃 (kkot) is a flower (or flowers) and 샘 (saem) means to be jealous. 추위 (chuwi) is a cold weather. Winter can’t leave because it is jealous of spring flowers to start blooming, so it has to be back. Well, I am not a big fan of kkotsaemchuwi, but I think the name is kinda poetic.
What does Jayeonsan (자연산) mean at Korean seafood restaurants?
Koreans love hoe (회). Hoe is a type of raw food dish in Korean cuisine. Two main kinds of hoe are sangseonhoe (생선회) with raw fish and yukhoe (육회) with raw beef. As for the culinary perspective of these dishes, we’ll talk later in the Korean food section.
When you go to Korean seafood restaurants for hoe, chances are you will see the word “자연산” on the menu. “자연산” /ja-yeon-san/ means they serve hoe prepared from wild-caught fishes. “자연” /ja-yeon/ means the nature and “산” /san/ means to be produced here (it’s different from 산, the mountain.) The opposite menu would be “양식” /yang-sik”, which means farm-raised.
In many restaurants, you will not see the word “양식” on the menu. If you see “자연산” on certain items on the menu, you can assume that others without the word are farm-raised. The prices of 자연산 are more expensive than 양식, so it is another way to tell the difference.
What do Goguma and Saida (고구마 & 사이다) mean?
고구마 /go-gu-ma/ and 사이다 /sa-i-da/ are the words that Koreans use quite often to describe certain situations, actions, or people.
First, 고구마 is the sweet potato. So you can say “아침에 고구마 먹었어요 /a-chi-me go-gu-ma meok-eo-sseo-yo/ I had a sweet potato for breakfast.” When Koreans use goguma as an idiom or slang, goguma means some situations that are so frustrating and annoying that you feel stifled.
The idiom comes from an obvious origin. When you eat sweet potato whether baked or steamed without any beverage, you would quite easily get thirsty or even feel choked. Thus, when a situation, person, or issue becomes frustrating due to misunderstanding or other reasons, you would feel just like you are eating sweet potato without any drink. In Korean, you would express this situation as ‘답답하다 /dap-dap-ha-da/’ as well.
On the other hand, 사이다 is an expression you use when situations like goguma are resolved in a very straightforward and clear way. 사이다 is a colorless carbonated soft drink in South Korea and it’s almost the same as Sprite. The word originally came from the beverage, cider, but it has changed its usage and pronunciation in South Korea.
When you drink a soft drink like Coke or Sprite, you would feel refreshed, and even it might help your indigestion (technically I am not sure soda has any medical effect on indigestion, though.) That’s why saida has been used idiomatically when someone says something straightforward or an issue is solved thanks to a highly clear action, which is hard to be mentioned or taken due to social customs, power relationships, or any other uneasy circumstances. This term is usually used opposite to goguma.
Let’s try an example. If you are a Kdrama fan, you would see this kind of situation quite often: the main character always has a hard time (usually in the beginning) by antagonists or unfair situations, but she or he always tries to be (too) nice or act irrationally generous. You would think this is so unfair that you feel stifled, and you want to solve the problem for yourself to go into the drama. Now, you say, “완전 고구마다 /wan-jeon go-gu-ma-da/” meaning absolutely frustrating.
In the same drama, there is always a friend or coworker who stands for the main character and says things that the protagonist can’t say to the bad characters. Or, later things finally get better, and the stars of the show solve problems in especially dramatic ways so that the antagonists usually lose all the money, go to jail, or lose a competition, and feel ashamed. Now you feel like you are drinking a cold soft drink after a couple of baked sweet potatoes. You say, “완전 사이다다 /wan-jeon sa-i-da-da/” meaning absolutely refreshing.
What do Bumeok or Jjikmeok (부먹 또는 찍먹) mean?
In every culture, there are always some feuds over how to eat some dishes in certain ways. Apparently, Koreans are not an exception to this: When to put a ramyeon (Korean instant ramen) soup powder, ssaltteok (rice ricecake) or miltteok (flour rice cake) for tteokbokki, and more. Among those controversial culinary issues, how to eat tangsuyuk (fried pork) with sweet and sour sauce is one of the most hotly debated topics, if not the most.
Tangsuyuk is a very popular Korean-Chinese dish, which is deep-fried pork served with sweet and sour sauce. Some people prepare to pour the sauce over the dish while others enjoy dipping each piece into the sauce. Koreans say “부먹” /bu-meok/ when you pour the sauce over fried pork. This is a shortened word from “부어서 먹다” /bu-eo-seo meok-da/ which literally translates to pouring the sauce and then eating it. “찍먹” /jjik-meok/ is dipping a tangsuyuk piece into the sauce. The word is also a shortened word from “찍어서 먹다” /jjik-eo-seo meok-da/, dipping it into a sauce and then eating it.
Obviously, this is not a life or death debate. However, it is quite a popular discussion among Koreans for fun (maybe dead serious to some people) and this expression is used quite a lot. Although some heavy eaters suggest that you should eat one more piece instead of thinking over whether 부먹 or 찍먹, this debate doesn’t seem to end in the near future.
What does Mapjjiri (맵찔이) mean?
맵찔이 /maep-jji-ri/ is Korean slang for a person who can’t take spicy food well. This wor is a combination of 맵다 /maep-da/, spicy or hot, and 찌질이 /jji-ji-ri/, a Korean slang for a loser. Use this term only between close friends. Apparently, 찌질이 is a vulgar word so you don’t want to say ‘맵찔이시네요’ to your boss.
When will I have noodles thanks to you?
국수 언제 먹여 줄 거에요? /guk-su eon-je meo-gyeo jul geo-e-yo/ Literally translated, when will you be giving me a banquet noodle? > When will I be eating a banquet noodle thanks to you? > When are you going to marry?
Eating 잔치국수 /jan-chi guk-su/ (banquet noodle) or 국수 /guk-su/ (noodle) means getting married in South Korea. 잔치 /jan-chi/ means a feast or party and 국수 is a type of Korean noodle. As you can guess from the name, traditionally janchi guksu was a stapled dish for a big party or event, especially at weddings. Guksu symbolized a long life or a happy marriage for a long time because of its lengthy shape. Thus, this expression has become to carry the meaning of when someone will get married.
Digression: if you are interested in Korean noodles, you can read about them here.
What does “Thin Ears” mean?
귀가 얇다 /gwi-ga yalb-da/ literally means that someone’s ears are thin or someone has thin ears. When someone’s ears are thin, this Korean expression means that she or he is easily influenced by others.
팔랑귀 /pal-lang-qwi/, which means fluttering ears, means the same.
A: 친구들 얘기듣고서 휴가계획 또 바꿨어. /chin-gu-deul yae-gi-deut-go-seo hyu-ga-gye-hoek tto bak-kwo-sseo/ After I listened to some friends of mine, I’ve changed my vacation plan again.
B: 너는 귀가 너무 얇아서 큰일이다. /neo-neun gwi-ga neo-mu yal-ba-seo keun-il-i-da/ It’s not good that you are way too easily influenced by others.
Do you have any Korean expressions that you don’t understand? So you can’t follow the story of why the main actress breaks up with the main actor in Kdrama? Leave your question in the comment below or send me your message. I’ll give it a shot.