Category Archives: Did you know?

The Korean way to say “pitiful” – nuance differences

Until recently I only heard the verb 불쌍하다 used to express the meaning “pitiful”, but just this past week, I came across two alternative wordings: 한심하다 and 애처롭다. Obviously that’s not something I can just let go unnoticed so I had to ask a Korean.

Broadly speaking it’s about:
1) the degree to which you can control the circumstances around you.
2) the speaker’s perspective on the event.
3) how “sad” the situation is deemed to be on some continuum.

If starting with point three, 애처롭다 is used to describe the most severe types of situations. The context in which I came across it was Harry Potter where it was used to describe the look that Hagrid gives Harry after telling him about the circumstances of his parents’ deaths. For this descriptive verb to be used, the situation has to be quite severe; e.g. losing family members, losing everything you own in an accident, being the victim of a natural disaster. These are objectively severe and sad events – being late for work might get you in trouble with your boss, but not quite enough for it to warrant the use of this particular verb.

The lines get a little blurry when it comes to 불쌍하다 and 한심하다. Both of them are used in more daily life situations, but the choice of words also says something about the speaker’s view on the events and the extent to which the speaker thinks that person could have influenced the events.

If someone breaks a valuable item that he or she holds dear:
불쌍하다: You feel sorry for that person because he lost his precious item – even if he did break it himself.
한심하다: It’s sad, but he could have been more careful.

If someone fails an exam:
불쌍하다: Poor thing, he studied so hard!
한심하다: Wow, that’s a shame… but that being said he should have studied more…

Now it definitely makes more sense why different words were used in different contexts to say “pitiful”.

수능, 수눙, 수능…

For those of you who haven’t heard any first-hand stories about how gruelling 수능 prep is, this video provides a bit of insight into what it is like.
It’s an opportunity to sneak a peek into the daily life of a senior highschooler and the effort and sacrifice that goes into doing one’s absolute best (and better than everybody else) on the exam that makes the entire country stand still and hold their breaths throughout the third Thursday in November every year.

The documentary is about 20 min long and it’s beautifully done.

One thing thing that really struck me is how nobody waited up at night for Bitna to make sure she got home safely after her late-night study sessions (I assume all mothers have the light-sleeper-ear tuned for when their children come home, though). I’m from a completely different part of the world, so maybe it’s perfectly normal for Korean highschool students, but to me that was the epitome of loneliness of preparing for an entrance exam.

돌잡이 ~ the “grabbing game” at first birthday parties

That a Korean child’s first birthday is something special for family and relatives is no secret, but there are several traditions associated with this day that we do not necessarily have variations of in other corners of the world. Many Korean learners and tourists have heard about the tradition of giving the child a gold ring, but how many have heard of the “first birthday grab” game?

The word 돌잡이 comes from two words:

돌 ~ first birthday
잡이 ~ preference

The idea is that a number of items/gifts are put in front of the child, and the item the child chooses first will say something about the life path that lies ahead of the child.

Traditionally three things have been among the possibilities with the following interpretations:
Money ~ wealth
A pencil ~ cleverness
A piece of string ~ long life

As life has evolved in Korea, so has the aspirations of parents for their children and some add some items to the pool:

Rice ~ Not going hungry
A stethoscope ~ a future as a doctor
A microphone ~ a future as a celebrity

I thought not going hungry would be related to money? In Denmark, though, we have a different interpretation of rice since we “rice” (throw rice on) newly weds as a symbol of fertility.
The stethoscope and the microphone puzzle me a bit. Would it be “trading down” if the child became a lawyer or biochemist?

I’m not sure I would wish a celebrity status for my children. Never being able to go anywhere – even grocery shopping – without people going wide-eyed and taking pictures on their camera phone. Maybe even needing personal security because of stalkers?
I thank my lucky star that I grew up in the age before smart phones since I would probably never have forgiven anyone who snapped a picture of me e.g. looking all sticky and traumatised after a camel sneezed on me at age four – yes it really happened and I’m still grateful my father would allow me into the car afterwards. FYI the camel lost its status as my favorite animal for a while after that even without pictures to remind me of the event.

Anyway, I think 돌잡이 is a fun tradition, and I never heard of it before today 🙂

My language partner picked the pencil and I suppose you can say she fulfilled the cleverness quota by going to one of the SKYE universities 😉

엄친아 / 엄친딸

These two come from 엄마 친구 아들 and 엄마 친구 딸

They are not so much words as they are institutions. This is the famous son or daughter of a Korean mother’s friend. The child you get compared to. Even after you’ve officially entered into adulthood. The son/daugher who is good looking, gets good grades, is always well-behaved and will never disobey his 엄마. Note, this person need not actually exist. It could just be this concept of ‘the perfect child’ that mums want their children to be or at least aspire to be.

The comparisons only go away when having children of your own…

The people of Korea: the people wearing white clothes

In the old days, the people of Korea were known for wearing white clothes, as it was thought to symbolise peace. This custom of wearing white clothes earned the Korean a nickname that can be described with a four characer word:
백의민족 ~ white clothes people

This in turn comes from a four character hanja word:

Let’s look more closely at the individual characters:
白 (meaning: 횐, pronunciation: 백) ~ white
衣 (meaning: 옷, pronunciation: 의) ~ clothes
民 (meaning: 백성, pronunciation: 민) ~ people. Literally “100 last names”
族 (meaning: 겨레, pronunciation: 족) ~ offspring of the same forefather, related by blood

The last two characters might seem a bit odd for most Westeners, but here comes my own, personal, home-made interpretation:

First let’s look at some statistics about Korean last names:
More than 1 in 5 is named Kim! More specifically 21.5% of the Korean population is named Kim.
The Lees follow suit with 14.7%
Park accounts for 8.4%
The Jungs count 4.8%
Closely followed by Choi at 4.7%
Last among the most popular last names we find Cho counting 2.9% of the population.
That means that only five last names account for some whopping 57 percent of the Korean population!

It also means that if you line up people with the top 100 last names you are likely to have accouted for pretty siginificant fraction of the population.
Considering that so many of people share last name, it makes sense that a Kim is not just a Kim, and not all Kims are related. There are different blood lines of Kims, Lees, and Jungs etc. Each line of Kim decending from a particular Kim is considered a “clan” of it’s own.
Some names have enjoyed higher status than others and like some British titles, family names have been traded among people in need of cash in return for status. Nevertheless, since a very large fraction of the Korean population shares last names, the total number of common last names really isn’t that big – especially considering the size of the country and its population.

Fun fact:
Until 1997 it was prohibited to marry someone from the same clan. Since each clan counts quite a few people, that ruled out quite a few potential couples that weren’t actually closely related. The particular legal article lost its effect in 1997, but it was only removed from the Korean civil code in 2005 when the law was revised. Nowadays the opportunity to marry someone sharing your clan name is based on how closely related you actually are rather than the fact that you shared an ancestor back in the ancient days.

To not get into the legal issues of marriage in present day Korea, let’s return to the hanja:
If you bring together all of the clans (all the last names), you have “a people”!

I don’t know if this has any relation to how the term actually came to exist, but this is how I made sense of it when I heard it 🙂 I hope it will also help you remember this four-character hanja 🙂

Did you know? To make or to bake?

In English you can use the verb “to bake” both for cakes and bread.
In Korean, the verb for baking, 굽다, is used for bread, while cakes are ‘made’.

My language partner said I could think of it this way:
When you bake bread, you mix some things together, but the oven will finish the job.
When you make a cake it can be rather elaborate work. Even if you need to bake some “elements” of the cake, that may just be preparation. Perhaps you still have to put the things together, decorate it and so on. This is something that we do, not the oven so therefore we make cakes, we don’t bake them.

빵을 굽다
케이크를 만들다

Did you know? “Being afraid” in Korean

Today I met my speaking partner and I learned so many new words and expressions.
We spoke about dramas! More specifically 최고다 이순신 and 구가의 서.
In the latter drama, “being afraid” is a recurring theme for the characters in the first two episodes that have aired so far so I found myself needing the words to say this. My language partner said the following:

겁을 먹다 ~ to be seized with fear, to be afraid

I looked confused at her. Did she really say 먹다? Yep! Literally, you “eat fear” to become afraid.

Without revealing too much about the plot of 구가의 서:
구미호는 무서웠는데 여자가 겁을 먹었어요 ~ because the gumiho was scary, the woman was afraid.