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:
白衣民族

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!
(source)

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.

Therefore:
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.

The “no-name finger”

No, this is not a post about “giving someone the finger”. Rather it is about the names Koreans have assigned to each finger on the hand.
Each of the fingers has a name in Korean just like they do in English and many other languages.
The Korean word for ‘finger’ is 손가락 and the individual names are composit names including 손가락. However, there are also names based on the Chinese character 지 (指) which means ‘finger’.

엄지손가락 / 대지 ~ thumb
집게손가락 / 장지 ~ index finger
가운뎃손가락 / 중지 ~ middle finger
약손가락 / 무명지 ~ ring finger
새끼손가락 / 소지~ little finger

Let’s try to look more closely at the different names and their underlying 한자:

The thumb ~ 대지
대 (大) ~ big
지 (指) ~ finger
That makes sense…

Index finger ~ 장지
장 (長) ~ long
지 (指) ~ finger
This one surprised me a little since it’s not the longest of the fingers.

Middle finger ~ 중지
중 (中) ~ middle, center. This is the same 중 that you find in 중국 (中國) ~ China (the Middle Kingdom)
지 (指) ~ finger
This is not a too surprising name considering the finger’s position on the hand.

Ring finger ~ 무명지
무 (無) ~ nothing, absent, no, none
명 (名) ~ name
지 (指) ~ finger
It’s a no-name-finger!
These are also the 한자 characters that the word 무명 ~ anonymous, unnamed are based on.
I did not see this one coming…

Little finger ~ 소지
소 (小) ~ little
지 (指) ~ finger
Again one that makes sense.

It’s a bit of a curiosity, but for some reason the ring finger got passed over when the others got named back in the days. Nowadays it’s mostly known as the 약손가락, which I thought was related to the fact that you usually make a promise to someone by wearing a ring on that finger. But now that we’re already puzzled by the ring finger, notice that the 약- in 약손가락 is not the 약- you find in 약속 (約束) ~ promise, engagement. Actually, it’s the 약- you find in 약 (藥) ~ medicine. So the ring finger is also a “medicine finger”. I still haven’t figured out why this is the case, but I am on it! If one of you knows, please share!

Healthcare, hospitals and K-dramas

Today I was talking to my language partner about difficulties that we have faced when living alone abroad which brought about a discussion of differences in healthcare systems. What to do when you fall sick in a foreign country? Who do you call? Where do you go?

In Korean dramas and movies you will often see that if a character is not feeling well, he or she will be told by a family member or friend “go to the hospital and get some medicine/get a shot”.
This has really puzzled me because where I come from, if you randomly go to the hospital without something more to say than “I don’t feel well” then unless you are very visibly unwell they are going to think you’re a hypochondriac diverting their time from those who genuinely need help – right now. A general practitioner will help you out with most things and find out if you need to see a specialist. And some specialists will only treat you if you have a referral from a GP – or pay up-front.

In Korea, a “hospital” isn’t just a hospital in the sense of a big building full of people suffering from various degrees of critical conditions.

This is where it gets intersting for a non-Korean like me: in Korea there are no general practitioners as we know them from many European countries. Rather, you will mostly go directly to the specialist who has something to do with whatever you need help with. Each specialty has a hospital/clinic – hence the “you should go to the hospital” comment.
In Denmark, you can also call directly to for instance a ear-nose-throat doctor to get an appointment if you have a problem related to that specialty, but the general practitioner is most patients’ primary contact with the healthcare system.

Here are some of the options you may come across in Korea:

병원 ~ hospital (includes everything; ER, heart surgery, etc. ect. as we know them from Western countries)
안과 ~ optical hospital
이비인후과 (comes from the hanja characters for 귀+코+인후) ~ ear-nose-throat
정형외과 ~ orthopaedic
산부인과 (notice that 산부인 ~ pregnant woman) ~ Obstetrics and gynocology
소아과 ~ pediatrics
내과 ~ internal medicine
치과 ~ dental issues
성형외과 ~ plastic surgery clinic
한의원 ~ oriental clinic

But what if you don’t know what’s wrong with you?
내과 is often the first stop for a patient who “just isn’t feeling well”. If you are just plain tired and not because of a regular sleep deficit, and you are beginning to wonder if something might actually be wrong with you, 내과 will take on the role of a GP who will order the necessary tests for you. The underlying thought is that if there is a problem it is likely to be related to something situated between your neck and your hips rather than your head or extremities, and therefore it is the job of an internal medic to do the initial check-up.
병원 is the first stop in emergencies.

Some people are proponents of traditional oriental medicine and will go to a clinic specialised in this.

Next time I watch a drama I will try to catch what they are actually saying because chances are the subtitles are saying “hospital” because it’s the least complicated option.

Happy 정월대보름

Today I received an e-mail from Korea 🙂 I always love receiving mails! And I learned something new about Korea that I want to share with all of you.

Today is the 15th day in the lunar calendar, also known as 정월대보름. While not as important a holiday as 설날, there are some traditions associated with this day.

Make a wish
Tonight the moon is full and because it is 정월대보름, you can make a wish while looking at the full moon. I think that’s a lovely tradition – and I already know what my wish will be 😉

Sell your heat
Back in the days when Korea relied mostly on farming, many farmers would set the farm on fire on this day to fight harmful insects and to drive away evil. Nowadays that would be rather unpractical and society has changed. What people still do is to “sell their heat”. As summers in Korea are quite hot, it is nice to be able to keep cool. According to the tradition, if you ask friends or family to take your heat, you can have a nicely tempered summer.
I might be careful with that one… Danish summers aren’t known for their spendour so I would rather keep whatever heat I might get than give it away! 😀

As for the food, on this day people eat rice mixed with a lot of different grains and they eat nuts. Today isn’t my cooking day so I cannot really influence the dinner at this stage, but I can always have some nuts a bit later 🙂

So happy 정월대보름 everyone. I hope your wishes come true 🙂