More Korean words I wish existed in English

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

먹칠하다

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.

Continue reading “먹칠하다”

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.

마녀보감 and the 3 episode test

I’ve recently gotten more impatient when it comes to TV shows. If you can’t hook me in the first 30 minutes, I’m out. My circle of drama-watching friends are a usually more forgiving, though. They do a “three episode test” for every TV show and anime they watch, meaning no matter how mediocre the first episode is, they’ll give the show at least 2 more episodes before deciding on whether to give it up or not.

In the spirit of trying to rekindle an interest Korean dramas I decided to give 마녀보감 (Mirror of the Witch) the three episode test.

…And, well, it’s caught my interest.

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Can we talk about how Kim Sae-ron is fifteen years old?! When did that happen? (Won Bin fans might remember her as his co-star in 아저씨–she was a tiny when that movie came out!). Also I haven’t seen Yoon Shi-yoon in anything since Unstoppable High Kick which was. ages. ago.

God, I feel old.

Anyway, let’s see if keep up with this one. I know sageuks aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but this is a good one if you like your historical dramas with a side of supernatural and a dash of folktale. It’s a good combination.

This seems to be the running theme of the show. It’s a good sentiment.

세상에 태어나지 말아야 할 사람은 없다. 어떤 사람이든 태어난 사람들은 저마다 하나씩 이 세상에 도움이 되는 이유를 가지고 태어난 것이라고 했다. 그것을 찾는 것이 인생.

There is no one who shouldn’t have been born in this world. No matter who they are, everyone who is born is born for a reason and purpose in this world. Life is about finding that purpose.

For the past couple years, when it comes to learning new Korean words, I’ve noticed that I’m relying less on memorization and more on Hanja. I’ve definitely been able to figure out the meaning of certain unknown words by breaking it down into its Hanja parts. (Studying Korean proverbs helps a lot too).

Take the word 마녀 (witch), for example. I don’t think I knew the word as a whole, but I did know the Hanja 魔 (마귀 마) and 女 (여자 녀). So 마녀 was ‘evil spirit/magic’ + ‘girl,’ or ‘witch.’

I think I first learned  마귀 마 (evil spirit, magic) after watching 마왕 (oh my god, that was also eons ago.) It’s amazing how many 마 words just naturally cropped up after that, especially after I started reading Harry Potter in Korean. Heh. Couple examples:

  • 마법 (magic + law): witchcraft
  • 마술 (magic + ability): sorcery, conjuring, spell
  • 마술사 (magic + ability + self): magician
  • 악마 (evil, bad + evil spirit): Devil
  • 마왕 (evil spirit + king): Satan

Back to the drama. Kim Sae-ron’s character is rumored to be a witch because she’s doomed to cause the death of everyone who loves her and everyone whom she loves. Yikes. It’s pretty clear from the first three episodes who the real witch is, though. It’ll be interesting to find out what her motivations are.

I haven’t gotten to the mirror part of things yet, though we’ve seen some hints of it here and there. Either way, I’ll probably keep watching and hopefully learn more words along the way.

볼장 다 보다

Sometimes there’s nothing harder than being honest with yourself.

As much as it pains me to say it, looking back on the past couple years or so, I’ve noticed my… 욕심..? for Korean deteriorating. I’m frustrated by my lack of improvement. I’m at a level where improvement doesn’t come in leaps and bounds anymore; it comes from dedicated, daily study, which I don’t make an effort to do. Korean dramas don’t hold my interest as they used to, I barely listen to Korean music or podcasts, and I can’t focus long enough to start and finish a novel in a decent period of time either.

Leaving Seoul after my first trip there, back in 2014, was far more depressing than I thought it would be. Immersing myself in the language was so effortless there… then coming back to the U.S. where I had to make an active effort to immerse myself everyday… Bleh.

So in an effort to stop whining and being lazy, I thought I’d kick myself into high-gear and sign up for TOPIK. The good news is, this year I actually submitted my application in time to be accepted for the April exam. The bad news? I studied for two consecutive days and then never picked up a book or looked at a practice exam since.

The actual exam is in less than a week.

I’m at a point where the following idiom has become sadly, hopelessly relevant to me.

볼장 다 보다

(사람이) 관계하던 일이 더이상 어떻게 해볼 수 없을 정도로 잘못되다.

Basically, everything that can possibly go wrong in a situation has gone wrong and you’re finished. Done. Ruined. Screwed. The jig is up.

This is kind of an interesting idiom because, when you consider the literal definition, you’re basically using it ironically. Literally, the phrase means ‘to be done with everything that needs to be done.’ Note: 볼장 is written together often enough that it’s found in the dictionary–it means ‘something that needs to get done’–but it’s easy to parse out the meaning if you write it with the correct 띄어쓰기, i.e. 볼 장.

So, literally, the phrase has a positive connotation. You’ve done everything that needs to be done. The idiomatic meaning comes from using this phrase ironically. When you’ve messed up something so bad, that there’s nothing else you can do to mess it up, that’s also 볼장 다 보다. You’ve done everything that can be done wrong, wrong.

So… that’s why this idiom struck a chord. Every place I could’ve fallen short in my preparation of TOPIK, I fell short. I didn’t do anything to prepare. Possibly the only thing I can do worse is spend hours cramming the night before the exam.

I’ll still take the exam, though. I’m hoping maybe that’ll be a wakeup call and get me to prepare for the October exam better. Meanwhile… I’m still in a slump. I don’t know how I can reconnect with the language. Maybe putting pressure on myself to do well on TOPIK is actually pushing me away from what I love about Korean? I don’t really know. What I do know is that I sorely miss this community of language learners and language bloggers! Thanks for sticking around while I’ve been MIA.

The problem with self-studying

It’s not a problem per se.  More like a challenge, and one that can be frustrating and amusing in equal measures.

When you’ve moved past the beginner stuff and are now immersing yourself in the books, TV shows, music, etc. of a certain language, you’re probably going to develop a very specific – and sometimes irrelevant – vocabulary.  Unless you’re super diligent and make an effort to diversify what you’re reading and watching, you’re going to find yourself learning words like autopsy and murderer and suspect instead of normal words like… uh…  mailman.

Maybe that’s just me.  (I like watching crime shows.)

Case in point:  I can’t believe I went six years not knowing the word for mailman in Korean.

That’s like one of those words I roll my eyes at when I find them in textbook vocabulary lists (e.g. “Chapter 3: Your Neighborhood”) because do I really need to know how to say words like bank and grocery store when I’m probably never going to live in the country where the native language is spoken?  Just teach me the good stuff!

I’m not even kidding when I say that I learned my numbers in Korean and Japanese only when I was physically in said countries.

The simple, basic vocab lists found in textbooks are just so difficult for me to learn because I don’t have any context for them; make me memorize them and I will forget immediately.  The words that I learn through immersion are the ones that stick around – but if the only context I’m getting is crime thrillers, I end up with a very skewed vocabulary.

So that’s why, twenty-something pages into 엄마를 부탁해, I had to look up 우편집배원 in the dictionary and then facepalm myself.  In my defense, I totally know what the word for post office is in Korean (우체국).  In my long and undisciplined pursuit of Korean vocabulary, I must’ve found appropriate context for that one to stick.

Okay, but this is getting to be a serious problem.  At SOME point I want to be able to take TOPIK and not miss questions because I don’t know ridiculously common words.  It’s also kind of embarrassing when you’re talking/writing to a Korean friend using moderately complex sentence structure, but suddenly realize you don’t know how to say chopsticks.

Instead of picking genre fiction (I think it’s pretty well known that I have a weakness for Korean historical fantasy novels), I think I need to read more contemporary- and/or non-fiction.  엄마를 부탁해 is great pick for that, I think.  More on the actual book in a later post but suffice it to say that I’ve come across a ton of words that “I should” be knowing.  And I’m gratified that there are a ton more that I do know well!

積ん読

I stumbled across the Japanese word tsundoku some time ago on Buzzfeed.  It was one among several Japanese words included in a list (listicle?) of “untranslatable” words from foreign languages.

First things first: This is a cool word.  I feel particularly attached to it because it describes an act that I commit with alarming frequency.  For various reasons,  have an issue with calling this and any word “untranslatable” – but that aside, it’s still interesting to consider its etymology.

tsundoku (Found in Translation by Anjana Iyer)

 

First off, 積ん読 [つんどく] is a compound of two words 積む + 読.  Breaking that down, we have:

  • 積む [つむ]: to pile up
  •  読 [どく – note the on’yomi reading]:  to read

Now the interesting thing is that the whole word is actually a pun on the word 積んどく[つんどく] which is a contraction of 積んでおく [つんでおく].  The latter verb ending – VERB STEM +ておく – indicates doing something and leaving it that way for a while.  (Think 아/어 두다 in Korean).  So,

  • 積んでおく = to leave piled up for a long time

The “books” part of the word comes in when you substitute the contraction of でおく (which becomesどく) with 読.  So clever!  And so very Japanese.  It sort of reminds me of the humor in 花より男子 with all the jokes around Domyouji’s misuse and misinterpretation of Kanji.  It’s so hard to get the humor or cleverness behind Japanese wordplay when you… uh… aren’t that good at Kanji or vocabulary in general.  Looking up the parts that make up this particular word was enlightening though.  And it sort of made me want to pick up one of those several unread books I have lying around!