Category: Vocabulary

Sweet potato vs. lemon-lime soda

A couple month ago, I wrote about how invested I’d become in Korean webtoons. If anything, I’ve become even more invested in recent months, after starting my part-time freelancing gig with Lezhin.

From a language-learning standpoint, this is actually great because aside from webtoons, I read mostly academic essays and literary fiction in Korean so, uh, I don’t have a great grasp on how conversational Korean sounds. I have no idea what idiomatic phrases or colloquial expressions are commonly used, much less slang; webtoons have helped me learn more about that world.

I also lurk in the comments, absorbing the brave new world that is Korean colloquialism and internet speak. That’s where I learned 고구마 and 사이다.

First, I present to you, choice comments from the Naver webtoon 옆집친구. These comments were for a chapter in which a third-wheel character was prevented from complicating the main couple’s hard-won relationship.

You might be able to guess what this means if you’ve ever eaten sweet potato or had a drink of Sprite (er, Chilsung Cider).


고구마 literally means “sweet potato.” But figuratively, it describes a frustrating situation or feeling being stifled.

In watching or reading something with romance, 고구마 could be used to describe a situation where the main couple’s love is thwarted, usually by something really stupid, like a misunderstanding or miscommunication. It’s that feeling of aaarghhhh! that you get when all you want the characters to do is kiss, but something happens to prevent it.

In other situations, 고구마 can be used to describe a feeling of frustration or your hands being tied. My teacher described it as a 체한 느낌, like when you keep having the same, annoying, circular argument with your boss.


사이다 refers to any kind of carbonated lemon-lime drink, like Sprite, Chilsung Cider, Mountain Dew, etc. Figuratively, it describes a sense of pleasant relief, especially after a frustrating situation (고구마!) has been resolved.

In a romance drama or webtoon, 사이다 can be used to describe a relationship that’s moving along smoothly or is finally reaching a satisfying, lovey dovey end after lots of pointless shenanigans (see above).

In other situations, I like to think of 사이다 as the relief you feel after a nice burp, or the crisp, sharp lemon taste on your tongue. It’s the feeling of 속 시원함 — both revitalizing and relieving.

I feel like my life is all 고구마 right now. It’s been 67 days since shelter-in-place orders were first issued in my county. Everyday I wake up with a sense of dread, rather than a sense of possibility. It’s all very weird. My thoughts go out to all of you.

Korean words for the pandemic

What can I say that hasn’t already been said? It is April 2020, and we are in the midst of a global pandemic.

I’d been paying attention to the virus since December, mostly out of an academic interest (in a former life, I was a graduate researcher in the field of immunology), but I still didn’t worry about Covid-19 as much as I did seasonal influenza.

When the virus hit Seoul in full force, I checked in with my friends in Korea and started to keep an eye on the news, but my life in California continued uninterrupted. I’d started the new decade with surprising momentum. I was in an essay writing workshop, honing my own narrative voice with the help of some incredible peers. At my day job, I was in the process of transitioning to a new team and was, for the first time, excited about the possibility of a real, long-term career in tech. Even more excitingly, I was hired as a part-time translator at a major webtoon portal and had just been contracted my first work.

In the part of California where I live, the first case of community-transmitted Covid-19 was discovered the last week of February. Right around then, an unrelated family emergency took my parents to India and brought my younger sister to live with me and my husband.

Less than three weeks later, several Bay Area counties, including mine, were ordered to shelter in place. While my parents were stuck in India indefinitely due to a country-wide lockdown, my workplace transitioned to being fully remote; and the team I was so excited about joining unexpectedly dissolved.

This is petty in the grand scheme of what’s happening in the world right now, but it feels so unfair. It feels so unfair that I was finally starting to get up after being so emotionally pummeled in 2019, and then this happens.

Continue reading “Korean words for the pandemic”


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.

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)

썸 타다

I love picking up new Korean slang.  Once you have a new word or phrase down, it’s like a whole new vista of meaning opens up.  All of a sudden, drama dialogue, radio shows, tweets, and forums start making more sense and you start hearing the word everywhere.

That’s how I felt when I learned 썸타다.

I first came across the word 썸 as the title of a popular song that was topping the charts about a year ago.  I thought it was a bit odd, but hey, a lot of songs have nonsensical titles, so I didn’t give it a second thought.  Funnily enough, the lyrics of the song describe EXACTLY what the title means, but I only discovered that recently.

Anyway, I’d been hearing the phrase ‘썸 타다’ over and over again in the drama 호구의 사랑 (Hogu’s Love).  It wasn’t until that scene where Hokyung presents “research” on the concept that it first occurred to me that this is some (pun intended!) type of slang.  Heh.  She says:

“‘썸’은 썸띵(something)에서 파생된 단어다. 시간이 돈인 현대 사회에서는 짧은 시간 안에 최적의 파트너를 골라내야 한다”며 연애하기 전에 이 사람이 나의 귀중한 시간과 돈을 써서 만날 가치가 있나 탐색하는 썸 타는 시기가 반드시 필요하다. 결론적으로 썸은 진화된 인류에 새로운 소셜 스킬이다.”

“‘Some’ is derived from the word ‘something.’  In this culture where time is money, and you have limited time to find a suitable partner, you want to be able to know if a person is worth your precious time and money before starting a relationship.  That’s why you need a period of investigation, when the two of you are ‘something.’  In conclusion, ‘some’ is a new social skill that humanity has evolved.”

So what exactly is 썸?  It defines a relationship status in which you’re scoping out someone as a potential long-term partner.  In American dating culture, this would be the phase when you’re casually seeing someone, but not committed to exclusivity.  I’m not sure if that concept exists in Korea (i.e. if you’re dating, are you automatically assumed to be a couple/exclusive?), so maybe that’s why this new term had to be invented.

Now while browsing Naver 지식in, I came across some users who suggested a slightly different, albeit not mutually exclusive, definition – and one that better fit the concept of the aforementioned song.  썸 seems to describe a relationship in which both parties are more than friends but not quite lovers.  They’re in a ‘flirtationship’ of sorts, but they’re not officially together.  They might do special, couple-y things together but insist to others that they’re ‘just friends.’  But you’re not just friends.  And you’re not exactly lovers.  You’re some(썸)thing to each other.

Oh boy.  When I read that – well, I’ve been in 썸-type of relationships myself… For a time it’s all fun and giddy, but ultimately it’s not sustainable.  After a period of time, you’ll always get to a crossroads.  Do I actually want to be in a relationship with this person?  Or are we good as just friends?  Sometimes it sucks to give a definitive answer to that question, but doing so is better off for everyone’s mental health!