Tuesday, November 20, 2012

A Dictionary of Kdrama Words to “Borrow”

While watching Korean dramas, I often come across words American speakers of the English language are tragically lacking. Sure, we have bon mots like kerfuffle, mooncalf, and onomatopoeia. But what about selca, CF, and skinship?

It’s clear that Korean has borrowed many words from the English language; as far as I’m concerned, it’s high time the English language returned the favor. Here’s a list of Kdrama terms and concepts essential to life in the modern world, wherever you are.

Gong Yoo unveils his chocolate, Big
Chocolate abs
Meaning: Chiseled abdominal muscles that stand out like the segmented pieces on a chocolate bar

As seen in: Big, and every single drama that includes a gratuitous shower scene (Thank you, Korea!)

American parallel: Six-pack abs

While America does have an exact equivalent for this term, it’s not nearly as wonderful. Sure, abs can look like a six-pack of beer as seen from above, but why associate something so marvelous with cold, hard, metal? The Korean conception of chocolate abs is much more appealing. Who can say no to a nibble, after all?

Yoon Eun Hye and Lee Seung Gi sure make a cute couple. 
You should get on that, Drama Overlords.

Meaning: Commercial film

As seen in: Greatest Love

American parallel: Commercial

Like so many entries on this list, CF is actually a short version of an English phrase that doesn’t even exist in English-speaking countries. Why CF evolved in Korea and not on American shores isn’t clear, but I suspect it has something to do with the frequency of celebrity appearances in ads: it seems as if every big Korean star shills for a list of products approximately as large as my town’s phone book.

This abbreviation allows the arty word film to be appended to something we Americans see as slightly crass—celebrity endorsements. Somehow, this tiny addition manages to class up the concept to the point of making it sound like an art form. It’s all about positioning: a commercial is something you fast-forward through; a commercial film is a work of art that just happens to be shilling a kimchi refrigerator or foundation for men.

Maybe someday we Americans will start talking about CFs, too. After all, “serious” actors like Brad Pitt are now appearing in television ads, which seems to indicate that a change is brewing. (Who can blame him for that bizarre Chanel ad, anyway? He’s got a lot of kids to put through college.)

If Jan Di had spent more time fighting in Boys over Flowers and less time
 saying Fighting! it would have been a much better drama
Meaning: An expression of encouragement

As seen in: Boys over Flowers, and every other modern Kdrama romantic comedy

American parallel: You can do it!

Along with its distinctive arm gesture, Fighting! started off as a cheer used during Korea’s 2002 World Cup matches. If the (many, many, many) Kdramas I’ve watched are any indication, it caught on big time and is now an indispensable part of communication in Korea.

It’s no great surprise that Fighting doesn’t really have a direct equivalent in America. If Fighting is Korea’s cultural keyword, America’s is Cool; we rarely offer expressions of encouragement and support. (The horrible, dated expression “You go girl!” might once have worked, but nowadays it’s exclusively used for the purposes of mockery.)

Ironically, this word that the English language is sorely lacking is actually an English word in the first place. If we adopted it in its new, Korean form, it might just make us better people. All I know for sure is that I’m always encountering situations tailor-made for Fighting!, but its effectiveness is diminished by the need to explain what it means before I can say it.

I’m sorry, but I can’t write a caption for this picture. I’m too busy
 restraining myself from making naughty jokes about eating ramyun.
Suffice it to say, these are the boys from Flower Boy Ramyun Shop

Flower boy
Meaning: Pretty, pretty boys who aren’t afraid to put some effort into how they look. (Did I mention that they’re pretty?)

As seen in: Practically every Kdrama made since the 2009 airing of Boys over Flowers

American parallel: Metrosexual

Like many Western fans of Kdrama, Boys over Flowers was my first exposure to Korean television. But when I started watching it on Netflix streaming, I had literally no idea what the title meant. Boys? Flowers? In America, those two concepts rarely go together.

In Korea, though, flower boys are all the rage. Heck, there’s even a series of television shows created specifically to take advantage of their appeal: tvN’s “Oh Boy” dramas, which includes Flower Boy Ramyun Shop, Shut Up: Flower Boy Band, and the eagerly anticipated Flower Boy Next Door.

Key traits of flower boyhood are a slender body, a delicately lovely face, and fastidious personal grooming habits, sometimes even to the point of wearing makeup. Being a pretty boy is something Korean men actively aspire to, which is why in 2011 they were responsible for a quarter of worldwide sales of cosmetics made specifically for men.

Mainstream American culture would probably consider most flower boys too feminine to be attractive, but we in the know realize that life without flower boys is barely worth living.

Kim Ji Won, you were so cute in What’s Up that I completely
forgive you for To the Beautiful You.

Fourth dimensional/4D
Meaning: Someone odd or spacey

As seen in: Endearingly goofy Park Tae Hee from What’s Up and dreamy Yoon Ji Hoo in Boys over Flowers

American parallel: Space cadet; weirdo

Regular human beings live life in three dimensions. But some people seem to exist on a different plane, never quite thinking or acting like anyone else. They’re easily distracted, whether by pretty things or big ideas, and prone to misunderstanding what seems obvious to those around them.

I suspect that people in my life would be especially grateful if this phrase entered the English language: they’ve probably spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to describe me, after all.

You know it’s true love when a flower boy dyes his hair gray for you, as Kim Bum’s
character has done in this scene from The Woman Who Still Wants to Marry

Noona Romance
Meaning: A story focusing on an woman’s relationship with a younger man

As seen in: The Woman Who Still Wants to Marry and I Do, I Do, among many others

American parallel: Anything involving the icky, condescending word Cougar

When I first started watching Korean dramas, words like noona and oppa were stunningly exotic; as a speaker of English, I’ve spent most of my life calling everyone I know by their first name. Koreans, on the other hand, have at their disposal a complicated network of words indicating almost every kind of relationship, from your father’s older brother (keun aboji) to the youngest person in your group of friends (maknae). There’s a case to be made for either of these approaches: the American way of doing things emphasizes equality, while the Korean way emphasizes interconnection.

But lacking a similar classification system, we Americans don’t have have an easy way to describe a romantic relationship between a woman and a younger man. (Not that we have much call to do so, anyway: As long as an age difference isn’t enormous, it probably wouldn’t be mentioned at all. And if it is enormous, in the post-Demi-and-Ashton world it’s almost certainly a relationship between a older man and and a younger woman.)

On other hand, Korean dramas glory in older women dating younger men. There are a number of sensible reasons for this: It’s a good source of narrative friction in a society that values age-based hierarchy. Plus, mandatory military service in Korea means that it’s harder to pair actresses with their peers—until they’re safely in their thirties, a chunk of the male population is otherwise occupied at any given time.

As genres go, the noona romance is probably my favorite. So what happens when similar plotlines appear in Western entertainment, like the upcoming Hello, I Must Be Going? I spend a lot of time explaining to my friends that “noona” doesn’t indicate a matinee showtime, that’s what.

Lee Hyun Woo, you were so darling in To the Beautiful You that no forgiveness is necessary.
Meaning: A photo you’ve taken of yourself

As seen in: Cha Eun Kyul’s selca diaries in To the Beautiful You

American parallel: To the best of my knowledge, there isn’t one

Fifty percent of the profile pictures on the Internet are probably selcas, yet we Americans have yet to realize that it would be handy to have a word to describe them. When we finally do catch on, the Korean version will fit right into our language: it’s a mashup of the English words self and camera, after all.

I don’t think they waited for marriage in Can We Get Married, btw.

Meaning: Affectionate touching, often involved with romantic relationships

As seen in: Most cable dramas, including the currently airing Can We Get Married? 

American parallel: Long strings of words like “physical displays of affection,” but nothing as short and catchy

There’s an urban legend that the Eskimo language doesn’t include a word for snow. Instead, the legend states, there are words for “heavy, wet snow,” “snow that’s falling slowly,” and “hard, crusty snow.” The theory is that in a world where it’s almost always winter, specific, descriptive terms for snow are more useful than the general word.

And that, my friends, is why there’s no American version of the word skinship. Physical intimacy here isn’t a big deal; we’re prone to casually touching those around us and displays of affection happen all the time. For example, consider my favorite recess game during elementary school: Kiss Tag. This is exactly what it sounds like—the person who was “it” had to kiss whomever they could catch, at which point the kissee became the new “it” and repeated the process. By the end of the first game, I had the kissing experience of the average thirty-year-old Kdrama heroine. (I was a slow runner, by fate or design. I’ll never tell which.)

Even in America, it’s hard to imagine the word Skinship not coming in handy: It’s shorter and more concise than most of our descriptions of physical intimacy, so why not use it?


  1. Haha!! I think my favorite is skinship. I could see that one actually taking off over here. I don't know if the flower boy thing would ever catch on though. In my hometown which is very Southern a lot of guys are even weird about hugging each other for fear of being called gay, which to them is a horrible disease (Which, I am always saying to my students that whether they agree with it or not, being around someone gay or touching someone gay isn't going to make them gay so why are they so scared of it? It's just silly!!) So anyway I don't see them embracing the idea of men's cosmetics, high water pants, and neck handkerchiefs...

    I could also see CFs being popular over here, and like you I'm surprised they aren't already.

    1. It's funny how ideas of masculinity differ in America and Korea—here, most boys don't like wearing pink, say nothing about eyeliner, because somehow their sexual orientation is tied up in their self-presentation. Even the term "metrosexual" makes it seem as if it's some freakish new development that a straight man might consider using hair product or hand lotion. Which, of course, is utterly ridiculous. (I have to say, though, I don't really find the high-maintenance aspect of flower boys attractive—it's the beautiful faces that do it for me.)

      Let's make skinship happen ;) It's nice that it's not all about sex, unlike most forms of physical touch in American understandings of romantic relationships.

  2. One of my favs is "omo!" When I think about it it seems like such an appropriate sound to make when you're surprised. And I totally call Prime and How Stella Got Her Groove Back noona romances! (...off to watch the trailer of the movie you mentioned...)

    1. You're totally right. "Omo!" does seem like something more appropriate for a person to say when they're surprised. And it doesn't make me think of screaming teenagers like "OMG!" does.

    2. Omo almost has an onomatopoeic appeal ;) The fact that it's super easy to say is nice, too.

      Also of value? Aigoo! I don't know if it's because I'm used to hearing people say it in an over-the-top, melodrama-style, but it just seems to convey frustration perfectly.

  3. Life would be made so much easier if everyone used these convenient Korean-English terms. Skinship is so dead-on that I could see this one being used internationally. Selca and CF are also really clever and short. With Fighting! I think you need the Korean temperament and enthusiastic hand gestures to go with it it, otherwise it won't have the same impression. Though, I think that the rest of the world ins't ready for flower boy yet.
    But my favorite is noona romance. The popularity of noona romance genre is something I consider surprising, because Korea is a pretty conservative country and you would think that older woman-younger man romance is something that people might find off-putting. But it's not like that at all. I really like that in Korea the term is made into something so sweet, instead of the icky mocking cougar term that is used in Western countries. And as a drama genre the noona romance totally rocks.

    1. Based on what I've read, it's trendy for Korean speakers to mash up words to make portmanteaus, and I love to see it bleeding over into English with things like selca. Saying anything in Korean requires a billion syllables, so it's no wonder.

      I think Korea being so conservative is actually one of the reasons why noona romances are all the rage—I get the feeling that they're slightly shocking there, and provide lots of conflict for writers looking for drama topics. I wonder, too, if the woman being older evens out the balance of power in the relationship in a male-centered society.

  4. How bout American parallel to 'selca' being "mugshot"?? Or am I just in my own 4D bubble here! 0_0" xD

    1. Mugshot would work, but has the weird side effect of making you sound like a prisoner. ;)

    2. Sadly, most selcas are rarely better than the standard mugshot. :D

    3. I've actually seen the word selfie. I like selca more, but because of facebook and instagram, etc. selfie is becoming more popular.

    4. Now that you mention it, I've heard "selfie," too. It's kind of cute, actually. Still, selca is better.

  5. Aish! I found myself saying that the other day when I was frustrated with something. I love your blog and the topics you choose. Korean drama fans are a demographic that is so passionate and interesting. BTW, I see that you were also enjoying "a wife's credentials". I was so impressed with the acting, writing, directing and soundtrack. Wish someone would take on the last episodes of this woman's coming of age story. Aish! However, I am going to start saying selfcap for those iphone photos...

    1. Aish really is another Kdrama word that's ripe for adoption.

      I actually haven't started watching Wife's Credentials yet, although I'm really looking forward to it. I haven't found it subbed anywhere past episode 10 :b

      If you know of any sources, do share! ;)

    2. My husband and I say aish all the time lol. And we are constantly saying "Whey?"

  6. I use omo, aiigo, and wae on a daily basis. Aish, I'm a little less fond of. Maybe because my sister got addicted to using it, and now she goes around allll the time saying it. Gets a little frustrating when you year aiiishhhhh ever 2-3 minutes.

    Flower boy is definitely not gonna catch on here. I also live in the conservative South, where apparently no one (not even girls!) appear to like pretty boys! Seriously?? ottokae?? They're guys.. who are hot.. and look pretty at the SAME time! But apparently everyone likes 'rugged' men. Oh well. More Kdrama males for us to ogle.. less sharetime. ;)

    1. Funny - my first kdrama was Samsoon and my second was BOF. I initially was turned off by the pretty boy look, but now I find it so sexy. I even like guyliner on Korean men. I thought the lead in Flower Boy Ramyun was really cute, but if I look at him with my BEFORE drama mind, then he is too androgynous. I love Aigoo too

    2. You and I started watching Kdrama with the same two shows. I saw and loved Samsoon years ago, and then stumbled across BOF on Netflix streaming last year. ::sigh:: Happy memories.

      For me, there is such a thing as too flowerish. And the hero from Flower Boy Ramyun is right where I draw the line. Lee Jun Ki wearing nothing but eyeliner, on the other hand, is exactly what I'd like to find under my Christmas tree this year ;)

  7. What about 'call'? I heard it in kdramas a lot (Ojakkyo Brothers, 1N2D). Does it mean 'you are on' / 'let's do it'?

  8. I couldn't agree more! These are excellent additions to English that I think really just need to happen. Actually, I have already started teaching many of my non-drama watching friends some of these phrases. They just make sense.

  9. The ones I like best and I say all the time in my head are:
    sounds like "crum". It can mean: then...., of course!
    Another sounds like "araso" which can mean: okay, I understand.

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