This is the funniest piece of Korean slang I have learned EVER. It’s pure gold.
So here’s the context. The phrase is 마의 16세. 마(魔) comes from 마귀 마, where 마귀 means ‘evil spirit’ or ‘demon.’ It’s the same 마 that’s in 악마 (‘demon’, ‘devil’), 마술 and 마법 (‘witchcraft’, ‘magic’), and 마녀 (‘witch’). So not a good thing, right? 16세 is sixteen years old, in Korean age (so 14/15 Western age), and this is significant because it is the age when students finish middle school and enter high school.
Basically, 마의 16세 refers to one’s transition from an adorable child to an awkward young adult. Puberty hits and, bam, so does the acne, the growth spurts (either vertically or horizontally), the braces, the glasses – all the physical and emotional changes that made the transition from child to teenager oh-so painful. This phrase covers the latter part of puberty – the transition into adulthood – and, interestingly, it seems to apply mostly to boys, whose physical appearance changes more dramatically in a short period of time (in some instances), than girls. Regardless, I don’t miss those days.
It’s possible that sixteen-year-olds might say something like ‘마의 16세만 넘기면 된다,’ but the really funny thing is that this phrase doesn’t seem to be commonly used to refer to Koreans themselves. It seems that some Koreans believe that the physical features of Asians do not change significantly between adolescence and adulthood, or that they make that transition smoothly without an ‘ugly’ period (e.g. look at 유승호 and 여진구!). In fact, this phrase might be used almost exclusively for Westerners.
The funniest thing about all this is that the origins of this phrase, according to my Language Partner 언니, comes from Daniel Radcliffe (of Harry Potter fame)’s shocking transformation from adorable 10-year-old to… less-than-adorable* teenager? Oh dear. Of course, I don’t know how true this is but some snooping around on the interwebs has informed me that a lot of people associate this phrase with Dan’s post-puberty transformation. Face-palm.
*Not my personal opinion, just reporting the general consensus. We all have our ideas of what is attractive and what is not, but I don’t like throwing around words like ‘ugly’ at anybody.