It’s so strange to realize that 성균관 유생들의 나날 was one of the first Korean novels I ever bought, at a time when it was still wayyyy too difficult for me to comprehend.
Six years later (!!), I can finally read entire chapters without having to look up words and still understand what’s going on. Plus, I know an astounding number of words related to Confucian scholarship and education. (
Oh my god I found the blog post I wrote when I first bought the books.)
Anyway, that’s how I came across the word 먹칠하다.
If you’re familiar with Sungkyunkwan Scandal (yes, still one of my favorite Korean dramas ever), there’s a part where Yoonhee, the main character, has to solve a riddle and fulfill a task assigned to her by the older students — a form of hazing that, according to my research, really existed back in those days. Her task is to steal the silk underclothes of Joseon’s most fastidious gisaeng Chosun.
Stuff happens, Yoonhee manages to acquire said underclothes without revealing her true identity (a woman disguised as a man!), but Chosun — not knowing that Yoonhee is actually a woman — suggest that Yoonhee visit her from time to time as repayment for the underclothes, and loss of dignity. Yoonhee replies:
“선뜻 받아들이기 미안할 만큼 쉬운 제안이지만, 그렇게 하겠소. 내 이기심을 용서하여 주오. 하지만 종종 오더라도 초선의 얼굴만 보고 가게 해 주오. 밝히기 쑥스럽지만, 술상을 시킬 돈이 없소. 어쩌면 그대 얼굴에 먹칠을 하게 될지도 모르오.”
“Yes, I shall do so; it is so regretfully simple a request that I can accept it readily. Please forgive my selfishness. But, please, even if I come now and then, allow me to simply look upon your face and depart. Though it shames me to reveal this to you, I have not the money to pay for food and drink. Perhaps I may even sully your reputation.
When I first looked up 먹칠하다, the Korean-English dictionary gives me the definition ‘to smear/coat with ink.’ The more common definition is 먹물을 칠한 것처럼 더럽히다 or ‘to dirty, as though to smear with ink’ — i.e. to disgrace; to bring dishonor upon; to ruin one’s reputation.
In the context of the novel, the first definition weirdly made sense to me — like Yoonhee is working so hard at her studies that she splatters the people around her figuratively with all her ink? Something like that.
I’m not sure if the word actually originated from the Joseon period or not, but given that this is a story about Confucian scholars, there’s no other word that would’ve been more appropriate in this context. 먹칠하다 literally contains the word 먹 , a solid cake of ink that you grind upon a slab of stone to liquify.
In fact, one of the first things I learned while reading this book is how precious a scholar’s four instruments of study (문방사우) were:
- 종이: paper
- 붓: brush
- 먹: ink stick
- 벼루: ink stone
Both the idiomatic and literal definitions of 먹칠하다 worked in some way in that context. The word was so fitting.
The literal meaning is not as relevant in this day in age, but the word is still fairly commonly used today to mean ‘to smear one’s reputation’ etc. Case in point:
Sometimes I look back at my old posts and marvel at the fact that I can write an entire, multi-paragraph post about a single word. I guess there are certain words or phrases in every language that I like luxuriating in because they strike some kind of emotional chord in me.
(Photo by Niketh Vellanki via Unsplash)