This is a follow-up to a popular post I wrote over SIX (gasp?!) years ago. My Korean vocabulary (much as I complain how lacking it is) has increased over the years, which means, yep, more Korean words I wish existed in English.
To be fair, I’ve come to dislike articles that say some word from another language is so unique and untranslatable, just because English doesn’t have an exact equivalent word. A good translation isn’t a one-to-one mapping of words; it tries to capture the meaning, voice, tone, and context of the original work.
So: this is a list of Korean words that could very well be expressed in English, but maybe don’t have an exact equivalent. All of these are commonly used words that frequently pop into my head when I’m having a conversation in English, making me think on more than one occasion, Oh man, there’s a perfect word in Korean for this.
대충 (부사): roughly; cursorily
I use this word a lot. It’s used to indicate something is done approximately, roughly, “kind of,” or “sort of”–basically, the opposite of being thorough about something. For example: 대충 알다 (to kind of know), 대충 훑어보다 (to skim through), 대충 파악하다 (to get a sense of).
I also enjoy using this word to mean the opposite of 열심히 or 제대로. For example: 대충 공부하다 (to study casually), 대충대충 살다 (to skate through life / not take life too seriously), 대충 하다 (to dabble in, to wing something, to rush through something — depends on the context).
I use this word a lot when people ask me how I started studying Korean. Since I started out listening to Korean language podcasts just for fun, I usually say: “처음엔 한국어 팟개스트 대충 듣고 있었는데, 들으면 들을 수록 많이 배우게 돼서 제대로 공부하기로 했어요.”
함부로 (부사): thoughtlessly; without care
Whenever I think of this word, I think of the scene from Sungkyunkwan Scandal where Jaeshin tells Yoonhee: “함부로 고개 숙이지마라.”
함부로 is used to describe an action that’s done without care, thought, or consideration, or done haphazardly and indiscreetly without thinking of the consequences. For example: 돈을 함부로 쓰다 (to throw away your money on something), 말을 함부로 하다 (to run your mouth/speak thoughtlessly), 함부로 행동하다 (to act without thinking). 함부로 대하다 can mean to act rudely toward someone, mistreat or disrespect them, walk all over them, and/or treat them as if their feelings don’t matter.
Sentences with 함부로 in them are fun to translate because to sound natural, you have to have a really good grasp of context and nuance in both Korean and English. Just look up the phrase 돈을 함부로 쓰다 in the dictionary–you’ll see there are at least four different idiomatic entries listed, each with different nuances.
Related words & phrases: 함부로 대하다, 함부로 쓰다, 함부로 들어가다, 함부로 말하다
설레다 (동사): to be nervous in an excited way
설레다 is usually translated as ‘fluttering’ or ‘palpitating.’ You’ll see it often as 가슴이 설레다 to mean your heart’s a-flutter or your heart skipped a beat — usually because you’re with someone that you’re attracted to.
I like using 설레다 more to mean a nervous kind of excitement, like when you’re about to experience something you’ve been looking forward to for the first time. You’re excited, but there’s a little bit of tentativeness, a little bit of anxiety associated with the feeling.
For example, when I recently met an online friend in-person for the first time, I exclaimed, “우와 진짜 설렌다 설레!”
Related words & phrases: 가슴이 설레다, 마음이 설레다, 사람을 설레게 하다
수고했다 (표현): good job; thank you
This is by far my favorite Korean phrase. 수고 means ‘effort’ or ‘trouble,’ and the phrase 수고했다/어요/습니다 is usually said to acknowledge someone’s hard work. For example, you might say 수고했습니다 to your team after pulling off a big event or making an important client presentation. I think the most natural English equivalents are phrase like “thanks for all of your hard work” or “nice job / good job everyone” or sometimes even just “thank you.”
But I love that the word 수고 is in this expression; there’s something nice about explicitly calling out the effort it takes to accomplish something, not just the accomplishment itself. 수고했다, 수고 많았다, and equivalently 고생했다/많았다, feels like an acknowledgement of the work you put in to get something done, not just the end result.
재수 없다 (표현): annoying, rude, unpleasant
This phrase cracks me up. 재수 means ‘luck’ or ‘fortune,’ so this phrase literally translates to ‘to be unlucky.’ But it’s used more colloquially to describe a situation or person that’s really getting on your nerves — similar insults include 싸가지 없다, 얄밉다, 무례하다, 뻔뻔하다, 건방지다, 등등. For example, if someone cuts in front of you rudely while driving, you could exclaim, “와, 재수 없어!”
You could use this phrase more literally to mean unlucky, as in 재수 없는 날 or 재수없게도 — in this case, it’s more like a bad situation arose that you had no control over. But used to describe a person, 재수 없다 has an accusatory nuance; e.g., a 재수 없는 놈 isn’t someone who happens to just be unlucky, he’s someone who chooses to be rude and annoying.
멋 (명사): charm; beauty; the quality of being chic, inspiring, and/or impressive
This word can sum up pretty much all of a person’s positive and delightful traits. 멋지다 or 멋있다 can describe someone’s demeanor (suave, cool, classy), their appearance (sophisticated, handsome, fashionable), and their actions or intellect (amazing, awesome, admirable, magnificent).
It makes me sad to see 멋지다 fan-translated as “cool” or “awesome” over and over again. But the awesome (멋진?) thing about this word is that it has so many shades of meaning depending on context. You could use 멋지다 to describe a famous composer or a civil rights activist for their accomplishments. Here, “cool” in English doesn’t quite have the right nuance; something like “masterful” or “inspirational” would work better.
Related words & phrases: 멋지다, 멋있다, 멋을 부리다, 멋쟁이, 멋을 내다, 멋대가리 없다, 멋대로
인연 (명사) : connection, relationship
This word describes some kind of relationship between two people. There are lots of different ways to use this word to describe the quality of your relationship with someone (e.g. 좋은 인연, 나쁜 인연, 영원한 인연) and/or related actions (e.g. 인연을 맺다, 인연을 찾다, 인연을 끊다).
I really like using 인연 by itself to mean “fate” or “coincidence.” For example, I met one of my closest friends online by chance so I could say 우리는 인연이다.
Related words & phrases: 인연을 맺다, 인연의 시작, 인연이 끊어지다, 인연이 멀다, 악연
부담스럽다 (형용사): to be burdensome; to be uneasy or uncomfortable
부담스럽다 is one of those words that I really, really wish English had an exact equivalent for. It’s often literally translated as “burdensome.” I see 부담스럽다 used more to describe situations where someone feels as though they are socially obliged to act or behave a certain way as a result of someone else’s actions towards them. Essentially, a feeling of social pressure.
For example, if someone you don’t know very well is being overly friendly and familiar towards you, you might feel like you have reciprocate even though you don’t want to. That feeling is 부담스럽다.
Related words & phrases: 부담 갖지 말고
Photo by insung yoon on Unsplash
Ahh this was such a cool post to read! I love posts like this. 대충 I guess can be translated to English, but the way it’s used in Korean is much wider than English ever can. Like 그냥 대충대충 해 ㅋㅋㅋ
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As usual, great post! I just recommended your blog to another self-taught Korean learner. 당신의 블로그는 정말 멋집니다. ^^
Aw, I appreciate it, thank you Sadhana! 감사합니다.