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”


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.


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!


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!

Buying and selling rice

I’ve said over and over again that it is impossible to truly understand the essence of a language without knowing a bit of culture and history.  Language is contextual.  An idiomatic phrase or saying that is difficult to remember because it seems “odd” might stick better if you understand its origins.  Such was the case for me with this particular idiom.

  • 쌀사다: to sell rice
  • 쌀팔다: to buy rice

My friend Kwang-im told me that in Korean, the phrase ‘to buy rice’ actually literally translates to ‘to sell rice.’  쌀을 팔다.  쌀 is rice and 팔다 is ‘to sell.’  I couldn’t really make head or tails of why this phrase would turn out this way.  It just seemed to be intentionally misleading!

Back in the day, rice was the most important crop/asset for any Korean family, especially farmers.  It was so critical to their survival that Koreans believed just the merest mention of “running out” of rice would infuriate the souls of their ancestors.  So, instead of saying you were going out to buy rice (implying that you had run out – gasp!), you’d say you were going to SELL rice.  Because you have so much excess rice that you need to get rid of some of it.  That’ll placate the ancestors!

There is also some speculation that class hierarchy and social standing might have lent itself to this phrase.  During the Joseon Dynasty and earlier, when Korea was chiefly an agrarian society, those who were in the position to sell rice could almost be considered almost nobility.  However, partaking in commercialism implied you were a merchant, which was still considered “low-class.”  So instead of saying outright that they were selling rice (쌀을 판다), merchants would say something like “I am buying money with rice” (쌀로 돈을 산다, which then becomes shortened to just 쌀을 산다).  So then from the merchant’s perspective, 쌀을 산다 actually means “I’m selling rice”; flip that around, and from the buyer’s perspective, 쌀을 판다 means “I am buying rice.”

Kind of confusing, but a very interesting redefinition of what it means to buy and sell something.  It makes a lot of sense if you think about money as a commodity to be bought and sold.  So when merchants say 쌀 산다 it’s like they mean “I have a lot of rice so I will BUY money with it.”  When buyers say 쌀 판다 it’s like they mean, “I have a lot of money so I will SELL it in exchange for rice.”

Now that my brain can interpret Korean in real-time (without first mentally translating into English, that is), reading language history and etymology stuff like this makes it easier for me to grasp less intuitive idioms.  Plus it’s super interesting!

(paraphrased from: source)