Using Korean words that don’t translate to English

Illustration of an overwhelmed girl
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Does culture shape language or does language shape culture? Either way, the two are most definitely interconnected. Thus, examining a language gives a great glimpse into the culture. This connection also allows for words that exist in one language to be untranslatable in another. Having grown up in South Korea with Korean as my first language, I definitely hold values uncommon in the United States and feel emotions I can’t describe in English. Here is a list of Korean words without a direct English translation!

정 (jung)

n. deep friendship, fondness, familiarity

I’m starting to develop 정 for Berkeley; it’s growing on me.

매력 (mae-ryuk)

n. unique attractive charm

The main character has so much 매력, I want to be like her.

애교 (ae-gyo)

n. cute charm

Her 애교 won his heart.

눈치 (noon-chi)

n. social and emotional sense; tact

He has no 눈치 — he’s never aware of the elephant in the room.

효도 (hyo-do)

n. duty to show loyalty, respect and devotion to parents

My biggest priority is to express gratitude to my parents by fulfilling 효도. 

기 (ki)

n. spirit, energy

Having so many people around, my dog’s 기 is really alive today.

존댓말/반말 (joen-daet-mal/ban-mal)

n. polite/informal speech

She’s older than me, so I use 존댓말 to her, while she uses 반말 to me.

싱겁다 (shing-geob-da)

adj. not salty enough

This soybean paste soup is way too 싱거워.

느끼하다 (neu-kki-ha-da)

adj. cheesy/greasy (regarding food or a person)

Animal fries from In-N-Out are so 느끼해.

답답하다 (dab-dab-ha-da)

adj. feeling “stuffy”, physically or emotionally

I’m so 답답해 because they won’t talk to me and I don’t know why.

아쉽다 (ah-shib-da)

adj. sad/inconvenienced by a lack; feeling pity for a situation; bummed out

It’s 아쉬워 that our travel plans got cancelled because of COVID; it’s a bummer.

어이없다 (eo-yi-eob-da)

adj. ridiculous; makes no sense and has one dumbfounded

That driver just honked at me then cut in front of me — so 어이없어.

삐지다 (ppi-ji-da)

adj. mad, upset, salty in a petty way

They’re 삐져 at their friend for not saving any cake for them.

설레다 (seol-lae-da)

adj. nervous in a positive way; excited

I’m so 설레 for our upcoming spring break trip.

감동받다 (gam-dong-bad-da)

adj. emotionally moved, touched, impressed

I got 감동받아 from Bong Joon-ho’s new movie.

화이팅 (hwa-yi-ting)

excl. “Have strength!” “You got this!”

You’re going to do great this semester! 화이팅!

Many of these example sentences are commonly used by many of my Korean American friends and myself when we speak to each other, as we constantly mix Korean and English to speak “Konglish.” What are some words and phrases you grew up using that are unique to your culture?

Contact Eunkyo Jo at [email protected].