무용지물

Does anyone else experience this phenomenon of learning a new word or phrase and then immediately seeing it pop up everywhere?

I recently bought a copy of 덕혜옹주: 조선의 마지막 황녀 (Princess Deokhye: The Last Joseon Princess) which, now I’m reading it, is actually so depressing I don’t even know why I bought it in the first place. But it’s a change from all the other… uh… historical romance novels I keep buying without restraint.

Anyway, I was a few pages in when I first encountered the word 무용지물 in this context:

빗소리가 우산을 찢을 듯이 요란했다. 자정이 가까운 시각이었다. 서둘러 길을 건너야 한다. 여인은 휠체어 위로 우산을 받치며 걸음을 옮겼다. 그러나 사나운 빗줄기 앞에서는 우산도 무용지물이었다.

And then when I pulled out my TOPIK book, I saw the word used in a sample exercise. The next day I read it in a news article. Chances are I’ve probably encountered the word several times and looked up its definition but I never truly learned it until just now.

As with a lot of the words, idioms, 사자성어, etc. that I know, I learned this one through context. In fact, the only reason it stuck out as something special this time around is because it’s a word that I inferred the meaning of based solely on my knowledge of Hanja.

The only Hanja I know is what I’ve picked up organically from reading (in other words, not much at all). That’s probably why this felt like such an accomplishment to me.

무용지물 means “good-for-nothing” or something that’s useless.

Breaking down the word into its Hanja components, we have:

  • [없을 무]: not; nonexistent

  • [쓸 용]: use

  • [갈 지]: to go (can also have the definition ‘to use/utilize’)

  • [만물 물]: any kind of thing

I think 之 is the only Hanja for which I can’t recall a word that I know. For the other three, even though I never really made a effort to memorize the Hanja (I happen to only know the Chinese characters because of Japanese), I was already familiar with several words that used that root.

Examples of words using 無 [없을 무]: 무관심 (apathy, indifference); 무표정 (expressionless); 무시하다 (ignore, disregard)

Examples of words using 用 [쓸 용]: 이용하다 (to use, to take advantage of); 소용 (usefulness); 용도 (use, service)

Examples of words using  [만물 물]: 건물 (building); 식물 (plants, vegetation); 동물 (animal); 물건 (things, goods, items)

So given that vague knowledge plus reading the word in context with the rest of the paragraph in 덕혜옹주, I was able to figure out the meaning of 무용지물 without a dictionary.

I’ve put off learning Hanja even though I know it’s something that Korean school systems require their students to know because I hate memorizing… but learning a few Hanja here and there “organically” isn’t very efficient. In fact, this encounter with 무용지물 revealed to me just how valuable memorizing Hanja can be to improving your vocabulary in general. Not only can you piece together definitions of unknown words, you can remember words better, and improve spelling too.

So… I’m probably not going to ever seriously study Hanja. But if you’re the type of person who can memorize like crazy (and retain that information) more power to you. You’ll probably expand your Korean vocabulary much faster than I ever will.

대기만성

Graduate school makes me sigh so hard my chest hurts.  It’s crushing to realize I’m starting my third year when academically, socially, financially, medically – basically in all aspects of my life, things haven’t improved or progressed in the slightest.  I feel myself unraveling.

What’s worse is that Korean, which used to be an anchor of sanity for me, is turning into a type of anxiety trigger.  It used to be the thing I could turn to when my day wasn’t going well or when I was feeling stressed out.  In that way, I inextricably linked a cherished passion with my lackluster academic life.  Now my Korean immersion actually induces stress because I’m beginning to associate Korean with all the negative emotions I have for grad school.

I’m finally taking a small vacation, and during the past weeks I’ve mostly avoided studying Korean.  Thankfully, I think it’s so prominent among my interests that it’ll be impossible for me to cut it out of my life entirely.  And of course, I have a lot of pleasant memories of Korean, which are collectively more potent than the grad-school-induced negativity I’ve come to associate with it.  My language partner, for one, is the main reason why I still have a smattering of Korean in my daily life.

A while back, I was talking to my language partner (who is also many years my 선배) about all these worries – basically how my research was falling apart, how I’m doubting my abilities as a scientist, how I’m nearly a year behind my peers, she comforted me with this four-character idiom:  대기만성 [大器晩成].

Looking at the Hanja, we have:

  • [큰 대]:  big
  •  [그릇 기]: ability, capability, caliber
  •  [저물 만]:  night; late
  •  [이룰 성]:  accomplish

큰 그릇을 만드는 데는 시간이 오래 걸린다는 뜻으로, 크게 될 사람은 늦게 이루어짐을 이르는 말.  In English, the meaning amounts to:  Great talents are slow to develop.

Regardless of the encouragements we may get from others, we’re all experts at doubting ourselves and thinking we’re not good enough for something.  But just because something is a struggle doesn’t mean you lack the talent or ability to do it.  It’s difficult, but I’m trying not to feel bad about how slowly my research is going and how many setbacks I’ve had compared to my peers.  It may take considerably more time, but hopefully my efforts will pay off and there will come a day my abilities will shine.

Daum’s Easy English (금상첨화!)

So much about language learning is about individual perspective.  For example, my own mother tongue, culture, and the values I was brought up with influences how quickly I learn certain Korean phrases or bits of Korean culture.  Needless to say, the things I can identify with, I learn more quickly.

That being said, although I use Marathi and my Indian background to connect to Korean, English is clearly my stronger language.  And as my Korean inches beyond the intermediate stage, I find myself reading more and more about English in Korean and I’ve actually learned a lot.  I began to pick up so-and-so Korean phrase is equivalent in meaning to blah-blah English and that’s really helping my writing and communication.  A fair warning though:  I’ve looked at a few “teach yourself English”-type books in Korean and am often baffled by the expressions and example sentences in the books.  Most of them are just BAD.

Now, I’m a steadfast Daum user (pretty sure I’m in the minority, but I can’t stand Naver) and I love the Daum 어학사전.  Recently(?), I found even greater reason to love it.  Daum’s Easy English series (which you can find on the 어학사전 home page) features some of the best and simplest explanations of English phrases and idioms I’ve seen to date.  The Korean explanations are easy to understand and the examples, for the most part, natural in both English and (I think) Korean.  The best part is they provide a really great Korean counterpart to the English phrase being defined – that means I usually learn something too!

daum

I recently learned a very relevant 사자성어 from one of the Easy English posts.  I’ve been kind of… skirting around learning these four-character idioms but my language partner Kwang-im actually uses them a lot (she also insists that I should know them because I’m a graduate student and thus should use ‘high-level’ Korean heh).

Anyway, the phrase is in the title of the post:  금상첨화 [錦上添花] basically means ‘the icing on the cake.’

Breaking down the Hanja we have:

  • [비단 금]:  silk
  • 上 [위 상]:  on top of
  • [더할 첨]:  to add/increase
  • 花 [꽃 화]:  flower

Together, you get the Korean definition of the phrase:   ‘비단 위에 꽃을 더한다는 뜻으로, 좋은 일 위에 더 좋은 일이 더하여짐을 비유적으로 이르는 말.’  (Adding flowers on top of silk – that is, having something good happen on top of something that’s already good in the first place.)

Flowers on silk, icing on cake.  Same meaning, different metaphor!

I’ve always liked Daum but the fact that it has this really great series, 진짜 금상첨화이다!