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!

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.


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.