Category: Vocabulary

Organizing new vocab

Part of the reason I’ve never liked formal language classes (or even textbooks, for that matter) is because I like learning new grammar and vocabulary in the context of original (native) reading material.  I can’t deal with “themed” chapters (e.g. “Chapter 2: Weather”) that force me to memorize relevant words from a word list.

But my problem with reading original stuff is that I jump around between several different novels, webtoons, and news articles at a time.  A lot.  On top of that, because I make it a habit of jotting down words I don’t know, one page of my notebook can be a jumbled mess of words and definitions from five different sources.  This really really bothers me because I tend to learn words in clusters (e.g. learning the words ‘detective,’ ‘prosecutor,’ ‘murder’, ‘death penalty’ together because they’re often used in combination with each other).  So it throws me off when I’m looking over a page that’s half-filled with detective vocabulary that then switches to words about painting and geometry.  Then I don’t remember either sets of words effectively.

I puzzled over how to solve this problem of organizing my vocabulary for a long while.  It didn’t seem cost- (or space-)effective to start a new notebook for every Korean novel I owned.  I switched for some time to using a binder and writing on printer paper.  Then I could organize the pages of vocabulary notes according to different novels, articles, etc.  But the paper buildup started getting annoying and I didn’t want to fill up my shelves with binders upon binders of Korean vocabulary.  So  then, I came up with this solution.  For online articles, I simply copy and paste the text into a Word document and voila.


I use the “Comments” feature to highlight all the words I don’t know and type up the definitions.  This is an article about 나인: 아홉번의 시간여행 which appeared in Ceci a few months ago (side note: some of these words I’ve already committed to my long-term memory!)  This is really helpful when I’m practicing translation too; I can just type up the English portion below the Korean text and use the comments as a reference.  Also, it’s great for visualizing how much my vocabulary has improved over the past several years/months.  Provided that I read the same genre over time, the number of words I highlight in every article will be bound to decrease as my vocabulary builds up.  (Again, this depends on the type of thing I read.  If I suddenly started reading economic news instead of celebrity interviews, without a doubt I would have crazy highlights all over the article.)

Okay but what about hard copy stuff?  For now, this is what works for me.

2013-11-27 00.07.07This is a page from 바람의 화원 and, as you can see, I’ve used Post-It notes.  Personally, I hate marking up my books (unless it’s for an English Lit class) so this is a good alternative.  Plus the notes are stuck roughly in the same area as where the unfamiliar words are located in the text.  The only issue this poses is that it makes going back and reading kind of inconvenient because you have to move the notes aside – and then they lose their stickiness and falling out.  Urgh.  But thus far it’s working for me!

So much of how well you learn or retain something depends on knowing how you yourself learn best, which is why I decided to write this post.  I still suck at retaining new vocabulary but I’m definitely getting better now that I have these note-taking strategies in place.  There’s really no right or wrong way to learn or study.  Trying different things and figuring out what works for you is the hard part!



백마병 & 도끼병

If you watch Korean dramas, you’re probably already familiar with 왕자병 (“prince disease”) and 공주병 (“princess disease”) – words that basically describe obnoxiously entitled, often 싸가지 없는 youth (an excellent example is 이승기’s character in 찬란한 유산).

백마병 and 또기병 fall under a similar category of exasperating people to be around.  Any idea what they might mean?

A prince usually rides 백마 (a white horse) while traveling or making ceremonial rounds through local villages, and the commoners bow and clap for the prince.  However, the horse, not knowing any better, prances and preens thinking all the attention is for itself.  It follows that 백마병 describes a condition in which a person always thinks another party is interested in them.

도끼병 describes the same type of person.  도끼 is “axe” which goes in hand with 찍다, meaning to chop (도끼로 찍다 = to chop with an axe).  However, in a colloquial way, the verb 찍다 can also take a person as topic or direct object and mean “to claim”, “to indicate”, “to name as one’s own”, “to have in mind.”  For example:

개는 내가 찍었다.  =  She’s mine./I’m keeping an eye on her.
찍어둔 사람 있어?  = Do you have someone in mind?

Putting those two things together, 도끼병 describes a person who thinks other people are always claiming him/herself as their own.

So basically, these two phrases describe people who always think other people have crushes on them.  I can imagine that being around a person who’s always fantasizing about so-and-so liking him/her can be annoying, but I think we’ve all contracted a self-resolving case of this disease at some point.  Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether a person is being nice for the sake of being nice in a purely platonic way, or whether that person is interested in something more!


I thought 헐 was just about the greatest thing, until my LP 언니 taught me this gem.

뷁 is used on the internet when there is no appropriate exclamation or word to describe the extent of one’s dissatisfaction.  That is:

NOUN+은/는 좋지 않다 can become NOUN+은/는 뷁같다 or 뷁스럽다.

I imagine this is used kind of like “blehhhh” or “mehhhh” – general, noncommittal sounds of dissatisfaction in English.  It’s embarrassing how often I use ‘bleh’/’meh’ to express myself at the cost of using more intelligent adjectives, and now I can do it Korean too!  Not good.  Heh.

So I tried looking up a few other things about this word (can you call it a word, even?) and found out that it originated from a lyric that went “왜 날 브레이크” from Moon Heejun (of H.O.T)’s solo song “I.”  When said quickly, 브레이크 (‘break’) sounds a lot like 뷁.  The funny thing is that netizens made fun of the song and his pronunciation by pasting his face onto 100원 coins (백원 = 뷁원).  So mean!  Check out the original song here (and I apologize for your ears in advance heh).


마의 16세

This is the funniest piece of Korean slang I have learned EVER.  It’s pure gold.

So here’s the context.  The phrase is 마의 16세.  마(魔) comes from 마귀 마, where 마귀 means ‘evil spirit’ or ‘demon.’  It’s the same 마 that’s in 악마 (‘demon’, ‘devil’), 마술 and 마법 (‘witchcraft’, ‘magic’), and 마녀 (‘witch’).  So not a good thing, right?  16세 is sixteen years old, in Korean age (so 14/15 Western age), and this is significant because it is the age when students finish middle school and enter high school.

Basically, 마의 16세 refers to one’s transition from an adorable child to an awkward young adult.  Puberty hits and, bam, so does the acne, the growth spurts (either vertically or horizontally), the braces, the glasses – all the physical and emotional changes that made the transition from child to teenager oh-so painful.  This phrase covers the latter part of puberty – the transition into adulthood – and, interestingly, it seems to apply mostly to boys, whose physical appearance changes more dramatically in a short period of time (in some instances), than girls.  Regardless, I don’t miss those days.

It’s possible that sixteen-year-olds might say something like ‘마의 16세만 넘기면 된다,’ but the really funny thing is that this phrase doesn’t seem to be commonly used to refer to Koreans themselves.  It seems that some Koreans believe that the physical features of Asians do not change significantly between  adolescence and adulthood, or that they make that transition smoothly without an ‘ugly’ period (e.g. look at 유승호 and 여진구!).  In fact, this phrase might be used almost exclusively for Westerners.  

The funniest thing about all this is that the origins of this phrase, according to my Language Partner 언니, comes from Daniel Radcliffe (of Harry Potter fame)’s shocking transformation from adorable 10-year-old to… less-than-adorable* teenager?  Oh dear.  Of course, I don’t know how true this is but some snooping around on the interwebs has informed me that a lot of people associate this phrase with Dan’s post-puberty transformation.  Face-palm.

*Not my personal opinion, just reporting the general consensus.  We all have our ideas of what is attractive and what is not, but I don’t like throwing around words like ‘ugly’ at anybody.

잠귀가 밝다/어둡다

Yekyung has an incredible ability to know exactly which words and phrases I might not be familiar with when we’re conversing.  Like she’ll go on for a couple minutes in Korean and then suddenly stop and say, “Do you know 모모?”  That’s how I learned this phrase.

잠귀(가) 밝다:  to be a light sleeper
잠귀(가) 어둡다:  to be a deep sleeper

잠귀 is pretty easy to figure out.  It’s just a concatenation of 잠 (sleep) + 귀 (ear).

잠귀:  잠결에 소리를 듣는 귀의 감각.  Your ability to hear when you’re asleep.

밝다 and 어둡다 are kind of funny to me because 밝다 literally means “to be bright” and 어둡다 means “to be dark” – so the translation isn’t exactly literal.

I used to be a 잠귀 밝은 사람.  I had trouble falling asleep anywhere but my own bed and I woke up at the slightest noise – but then graduate school happened.  Unsurprisingly, I now have no trouble sleeping like a rock at any given time or place, including during seminars.  Or so I thought.  Yekyung has got to be the most 잠귀가 어두운 사람 I have ever met.  She needs to set six alarms to get up in the morning… and then she makes fun of me for being a sleepyhead!  XD

Ten Korean words I can never remember

As you guys might know already, I dislike memorizing vocabulary words.  Most of the Korean words I know are from reading articles and books, listening to podcasts and songs (especially rap – I’ve learned so many great words from Epik High), and watching variety shows and dramas.  I’d rather learn words slowly and naturally through context than force myself to study stacks of flashcards.  It might be slower but the retention rate is better, in my case.

There are some words that I hear once or twice and remember forever because of the particular context I read them in.  For example, I will forever remember 고구마 = sweet potato because of 우결 and I learned a lot of entertainment industry-related vocabulary by reading celebrity news.

But there are some words that I see over and over and over and over again in different contexts that I have to look up EVERY SINGLE TIME.  I don’t know why they refuse to stick.  I write them down over and over again, to no avail.  Some of these words stump me because they have so many definitions to them; others are just verbs or adjectives that I find difficult to learn through context.  Maybe jotting them down here will help?

1) 파악하다 (타동사)(사람이 어떤 대상의 내용이나 성질 따위를)충분히 이해하여 확실하게 알다.

2) 넘어가다 (자동사) = 쓰러지다; to set, sink, go down; 옮아가다; 속다; to be swallowed; to be turned over

3) 겪다 (타동사)to undergo, experience, suffer

4) 딱히 (부사) = (not) necessarily, (not) always, (not) exactly, (not) completely

5) 유쾌하다 (형용사) = (사람이나 그 기분이)즐겁고 상쾌하다.

6) 대상 (명사) = the subject, object, target (of study)

7) 살짝 (부사) = 남이 모를 정도로 재빠르게; 심하지 않게 약간; 힘을 들이지 않고 가볍게.

8) 개념 (명사) = 생각; 철학

9) 흩어지다/흐트러지다 (자동사) = (한곳에 모여 있던 무엇이)각각 떨어지거나 퍼지다.

10) 흥미 (명사) = 흥(fun, interest, merriment)을 느끼는 재미; 어떠한 사물에 대해 느끼는 특별한 관심.

Oh man, they look so simple now that I’ve listed them out!  (Of course the list itself isn’t exhaustive.)  Haha.  My vocabulary is so bad. :(

What are some words YOU find difficult to remember?

성질 급한… 한국사람?

So I just learned this expression from Jeannie today.  Let’s break it down!

  1. 성질:  temper
  2. 급하다:  to be urgent, pressing, in a hurry

Together, we get 성질(이) 급하다 = to be quick-tempered or to be impatient.   I’ve heard a lot about Koreans being impatient and wanting things to be fast, fast, fast all the time.  Though I can’t say this is all too unique to Korea; it seems like most people around the world are beginning to value their time a little too much, a little too unreasonably.  This is certainly the mentality shared by a lot of Americans.

But what are 성질 급한 한국사람들 like?  You might get a sense of it from last year’s rather hilarious Olleh CF.  (Thanks for sharing this with me, Jeannie!)

The tagline might be specific to Koreans but I certainly find myself relating to a couple of these situations!  Especially the printer and nailpolish cuts.  Haha!

쓸 데 없는 고퀄리티

I was reading a magazine article (a really interesting one which I’m currently in the process of translating.  Should be up in a couple days) and I came across this phrase.  I kind of figured out what it meant from context but a quick search and a LINE message to Yekyung clarified it for me.

This phrase is 유행어 – a popular phrase or “lingo.”  Let’s break it down.

  1. 쓸 데 없다:  useless, unnecessary, superfluous.  I’ve used this phrase a lot in the context of “쓸 데 없는 걱정/말.”
  2. 고퀄리티:  This comes from attaching the Hanja 高 (높을 고, 높이 고) to the English word “quality.”  높다, as you might know, means “to be high.”

Putting it together, 쓸 데 없는 고퀄리티 = ridiculously high quality.

What exactly gets does that mean?  I actually see this phrase mostly referring to things that are elaborately well made, but cannot bring the maker any real attention or profit.  That is, the time and effort put into making the thing, far exceeds the payoff.  For example, a doodle like the one below:


I found an article about the phrase over at 10Asia and it ended with this rather profound statement:

자신에게 쓸 데 없으나 세상을 위해 고퀄리티를 포기하지 않는 이들을 일컬어 우리는 예술가라 부른다.


I get the sense that words in Korea come and go like fashion statements.  Obviously, since I don’t live in Korea and I don’t hear Korean around me all the time, it’s hard to pick up on current slang; when I do encounter one inadvertently in a variety show or drama, it usually requires a bit of sleuthing before I can piece together its meaning.

Let me tell you about this word though.  멘붕.

So graduate school and life has kept me really busy, but I do try to squeeze in a little bit of Korean exposure everyday.  Granted, I don’t read or listen to nearly as much Korean as  I used to a year ago, and yet – and yet – I managed to encounter this word about five times in the course of three days and twice in the same drama.

멘붕 is a 신조어 (newly-coined word) or, as my friend Yekyung likes to call it, a 외계어 (a meaningless, made-up word) which stands for 멘탈 붕괴.  Let’s break it down.

  1. 멘탈:  mental
  2. 붕괴:  무너짐 (collapse, breakdown)

Together, we have 멘붕 = mental breakdown.

You might also recognize it as being yet another example of 준말, or an abbreviated word, which I talked about in some detail over at selfstudykorean.

I think I first heard this word sometime around late 2011 but the fact that I heard it so many times in such a short duration made me sit up.  Words like these are merciless to the unwary language learner!  It doesn’t help that Korean youth seem to be using more and more such words in their daily language, to the extent that even some native speakers struggle to understand their meaning.

My advice if Korean slang has you stumped:  Google the word followed by “무슨 뜻.”  Chances are, if it’s a newly coined word, there are Koreans out there who are probably wondering what it means too.  I can certainly admit to not knowing all the English internet slang out there.  Good thing I have my resources.

Nine Korean words I wish existed in English

I’m in constant danger of using these words in the middle of an English conversation.

1. 역시: The best English equivalents I can come up with for this word are “naturally,” “obviously,” “as expected,” and “of course” but I still find that situations where that sounds odd in English.  역시 is such a pithy answer to a variety of different scenarios; I do wish there was a single, direct English equivalent.  For example, suppose your friend says something like, “콘서트 최고였어!  지드래곤은 진짜 멋있더라!”  To which you could very simply reply, “역시” to mean “naturally” or “of course.”  But say 지드래곤 was at an interview and said, “이번 생일부터 저의 선물로 돈을 기부하겠습니다.”   If you were the interviewer, you could say, “와~~ 역시 지드래곤 씨네요!” which uses 역시 to mean more like, “that’s what I would’ve expected from you.”

2. 글쎄: Such a delightfully noncommittal word.  It can mean “I guess,” “I dunno,” “maybe,” “not sure” or simply “hmmm.”  Just leave it to the listener to figure out what you really mean.

3. 헐:  Oh yes, the word that perfectly sums up my entire existence!  I equate this sound with “OMG WHAT” or “HUH??” or “that’s crazy” – though my Korean friend tells me it can also be used when you mean 대~~~박.

4. 길치:  길 means “way, street” and 치 is “person” – 길치 is a person with no sense of direction.  If only there was a word this succinct in English that describes my condition.  On a similar note, 음치, which is 음악 + 치, means a “tone-deaf person.”

5. skinship:  Technically not Korean, doesn’t keep it from being awesome.  I use PDA as a poor substitute, but skinship is so much better.

6. 맞선:  The only reason I wish this word existed in English is so I’d be able to better explain the process of Indian arranged marriages to my American friends.  In Marathi, there’s a phrase we use that translates to “going to see the boy/girl” which basically means the same thing as  맞선.  In fact, the phrase “선 보다” translates beautifully into Marathi but sounds really clunky in English – essentially translating to “meeting each other with the intention of getting married.”  I usually explain this to my friends as “a very serious blind date arranged by one’s parents” which doesn’t have quite the same meaning or ring to it.

7. 멍:  Gosh, I love this word!  It’s basically the speechless, zoned-out, eye-glazed-over, “ehhhh” type of expression that you’d find on the face of every student forced to sit through a difficult lecture. It’s ridiculously fun to say too.

8. 짝사랑:  You could use “crush” but the point is that it’s unrequited and not all crushes are.  “Unrequited love” is a mouthful to say and it doesn’t look quite as romantic when you’re trying to translate song lyrics.  What’s even harder to translated is when it’s used as a verb.  How does one properly translate 짝사랑 하다?  “To have an unrequited love?” “To love someone one-sidedly?” Neither one really rolls off the tongue.

9. 뒷모습:  This word makes me groan when I’m translating songs.  뒤 is “back, rear” and 모습 is “figure, image” and together, this word means “appearance from behind.”  Sure, you could translate this as “back” or “behind” but it often sounds flat in the context of a song.  If I’m feeling poetic, I usually translate 네 뒷모습 as “your retreating figure” but even that sound a bit… blargh.

Of course, these are excluding all those lovely ideophonic words and kinship terms which present such troubles for poor amateur translators like me!  What are some Korean words you wished existed in English?