Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Nonessential words Korean drama has taught me

If life were more like television, I would speak perfect Korean by now. Characters are always coming to Earth and/or America and picking up English from a couple of episodes of Wheel of Fortune or reruns of The Cosby Show. (But then again, if life and television were more similar I would also be embroiled in a love triangle with a supportive nice guy and a jerk chaebol who might be my brother. Alas, that’s not the case, either.)

According to my Drama Fever profile, I’ve watched 1,654 hours of Kdrama over the past three years. (Whatever you do, don’t do the math—it’s scary.) And yet, the level of my Korean vocabulary is still hovering between what you would expect from an elephant and golden retriever.

It’s just as well that I’ll probably never actually go to Korea. While I have learned some Korean words that would be helpful from a tourist’s perspective—eotteoke and choogoolae come to mind—most of my vocabulary is probably not that valuable. Here’s a brief catalog of the most random Korean words I know.

Saranghaeyo/I love you. Even the most tin-eared viewer (i.e., me) can’t help learning this phrase. It’s featured in the key scene of practically every Kdrama ever filmed, and it’s easy to distinguish because it starts with such a hard consonant. But when it comes to practical usefulness for a the fangirl abroad, it’s suspect.

I can just see it now—my eyes lock with a cute Korean boy while riding in a cable car to Namsan Tower. Lacking the ability to converse about casual things like the weather or the latest Girls’ Generation song, I will bust out the first Korean phrase I ever learned: Saranghaeyo. In response, he will no doubt leap from the car and sprint into the safety of the parkland surrounding the tower.

While its root word—sarang, love—can be used for things other than people and might come in handy, it’s pretty clear that the brain cells now devoted to remembering Saranghaeyo could be put to much, much better use. (What I don’t get is why I immediately learned “I love you,” but only recently picked up “I like you”—joahaeyo.)

Baker King Kim Tak Gu: I guess a rose by any other name really would smell as sweet.

Tak Gu/Ping pong. In American English, most names don’t really mean anything. Beyond a few girls named April, Hope, or Charity, our names are generally rooted in foreign languages or long-forgotten English words. But that doesn’t seem to be the case in Korea (or at least in Korean drama), where people sometimes wind up with names that have colorful meanings. (Oh, who am I kidding? People are always winding up with names that have colorful meanings, because that’s how the Kdrama writers roll.)

I’ve seen not one but two shows featuring characters named Tak Gu—Baker King Kim Tak Gu and Capital Scandal. Here’s how Yoon Si Yoon’s character sums up the situation in Baker King: “My name is Kim Tak Gu. It’s not because I’m good at playing table tennis. Tak symbol meaning high, and Gu symbol meaning to save. You better remember it.”

I’m pretty hard-pressed to imagine a scenario when tak gu would be useful during my nonexistent trip to Korea. Anything that might prevent me from having to play ping pong is a good thing, I guess.

Yeobo/honey. If I had a dime for every time this word came up in weekend family dramas, I would be rich enough to buy Korea, not just visit it. For my purposes, though, it is highly inessential.

Bom/spring. For some reason, words that are used as drama titles seem to stick more than other words. (See also Gaksital.) That’s why this one is in my vocabulary—it’s the gift of Dal Ja’s Spring. The fact that Gong Hyo Jin’s daughter in the tear-jerker Thank You was named Spring didn’t hurt on the memory retention front, either. Now if only it was useful, I’d be on my way.

To the Beautiful You: Maybe Sangchu is supposed to bring to mind a lettuce wrap, which she sort of looks like?

Sangchu/lettuce. One of the 8 million things that must be hard about subbing Kdramas is deciding when to translate these colorful names into their English equivalents and when to leave them in Korean. The subbers at Dramafever and Viki made different decisions for the adorably fluffy dog in To the Beautiful You. I spent about 6 episodes thinking how weird it was that the dog was named “lettuce,” only to switch over to Viki for an episode and realize he was being called “Sangchu,” forever cementing the word and its definition in my mind.

I have no idea why someone would name their dog after produce. Why couldn’t it have been named “Where’s the bathroom”? That’s something I might have gotten some use out of.

Gu/nine. Even before the drama Nine was released, the mythical gumiho—or nine-tailed fox—made it impossible to avoid this word. As numbers go, nine seems to be the least valuable. How often do you need to talk about nine of something, as opposed to two or three? Thanks again, Korea. (Although I must admit you’re doing your darnedest to teach me “one, two, three.” First it ran throughout Love Rain, and now it’s always popping up in Smile, You. So maybe I forgive you.)

Yeogie/here. I’ve formulated a language-learning strategy: have velvet-voiced Lee Sun Gyun recite words at you until they’re burned forever into your memory. Thanks to the drama Pasta, I can attest that it works. There’s one scene where he must say yeogie at least fifty times, and I remember each and every one of them.

A Love to Kill: Rain on me. Please.

Bi/rain. When it’s attached to a man that hot, pretty much any word would be hard to forget. Thanks to him, Love Rain is the first multi-word drama title I can understand: Sarang Bi.

Guk su/noodle. This word would actually be a pretty important part of my fictional Korea trip, as I’m obsessed with carbohydrates in all their tasty forms. But how did I learn it? That’s right—from the name of a Kdrama character. As if the poor illegitimate son on Ojakgyo Brothers needed a heavier to weight to bear in life, his mother decided to name him after his father’s favorite food—noodles. Note to perspective parents the world over: just because it’s yummy does not mean you should name your child after it.

Wangja/prince. As a hardcore Coffee Prince fan, I picked up pretty quickly on wangja and wang, its kingly counterpart. Unfortunately, Korea hasn’t had either a king or a prince for generations now, so the usefulness of these words will probably be limited to discussing sageuks (or possibly Jang Geun Suk). Why is it that the easiest words to remember are always the ones I need the least?


  1. My 13yr old niece loves to ask me to say Korean words and I'm usually a little embarrassed at how random they are. So, this post was really fun! Especially the part about memorizing anything spoken by Lee Sun-Gyun. I'll always remember him saying "again" hundreds of times. It tormented everyone in the story but sounded so dreamy comming from him. :) As you can tell, I learned to understand it and say it but not spell it.

  2. When you have been studying Korean for 2 years (as I have), these words pretty much lose their magic and become just vocabulary you have to learn if you want to communicate. But, oh, the thrill you get when in Korea when you actually say sentences in Korean and the locals understand you. It's wonderful and gives you a lovely warm feeling. I recommend learning Korean to all kdrama nuts (and visiting Korea!!, I am going again next March). But, I must admit, I didn't know Sangchu was lettuce (and it seems so weird seeing these words written with roman letters instead of Hangul).

  3. I find myself using a lot of Korean lately. Usually when I'm trying to move around or get up and down my chairs (still in a ton of pain from my surgery). Except most of the words are things likes aiish and aiigo and chincha! I also decided to that Hana Teul Set was more inspirational than one two three when I'm preparing myself to move.

    I think I understand way more Korean than I'll ever be able to remember and actually use. Though thanks in part to the masters sun, I've added keojyo to my vocab. Fortunately for me, most of the people I tell it to don't know I'm trying to tell them to Get lost! Lol

    1. ha ha, I do the same thing. Keojyo has definitely been added to my vocab since Masters Sun. I love watching shows without subs sometimes and picking out sentences. I'm so proud of myself when I can translate a whole sentence. Well, usually it's a short sentence, lol, but still. :-P

  4. Great post! I am terrible with languages and sadly to say after 3 years of k drama viewing I still rely heavily on subs. I can understand greetings, names, titles, and random words that some how stand out to me, but to follow the conversation I need assistance. i have good intentions, but life happens. My uni does not offer Korean and that is a bummer because I have 12 credits of FL to fulfill. This post inspires me to a goal to learn new words from each drama I watch going forward and to plan to buy a textbook or two, and begin learning the alphabet during summer break. I cannot thank subbers enough for allowing non natives to enjoy the dramas and movies, especially subbers that add that extra little bit to explain a pun or colloquialism or folklore. I know that I miss a lot of the context of the culture because of my ignorance.

  5. Yeobo, jagiya, nampyeon (husband), bwin (wife) - all words I've learnt over the years that will never be required in any situation ever. Unless I marry a Korean, I suppose...

    The first word I learned was 'hajima' (don't) followed by 'ka' (go) and 'kajima' (don't go). Oh, and 'yeppuda' (pretty). And of course, 'kamsahapnida' and 'gomowoyo'. I started studying Korean but stopped after 3 terms because I found I didn't have time to study because I was watching too many dramas, lol.

  6. Araso (I understand or all right) and Crum (well, then..) along with ottoke (what do I do now?). These words I will probably never have a need to say but say them in my head all the time! I'm off to watch the premier of Heirs and the finale to Good Doctor. Great K-drama night on Dramafever!

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