78 Greatest Korean Idioms For Everyday Life

Korean Idioms

What makes the Korean language beautiful? Well, it’s the incredible culture behind it! So, let’s unravel some powerful Korean idioms 관용구 (gwanyonggu) today to appreciate the language and Korea better!

Could you imagine how life would be without idioms? We frequently resort to using idioms and proverbs when specific circumstances happen. When we want to offer guidance to another person, we often turn to these, as they are perceived as full of wisdom.

In this blog, we will be learning about Korean idioms. For Korean language learners, this will be beneficial because you can take your language skills to the next level. This will also help language learners to sound more like native speakers, which I think everyone is hoping for. So, let’s not wait any longer and learn some idioms.

How To Say “Idioms” In The Korean Language?

The Korean word for idioms or idiomatic expressions is 관용구 gwanyonggu. Korean idioms are phrases native speakers use in everyday life to express their opinions in a creative and non-literal way. It is a manifestation of how colorful the culture and the language are.

Idiomatic Expressions Vs. Proverbs

Idioms and proverbs are expressions used in certain situations, like giving advice or guidance. But some people are confused with these two. So, let me quickly walk you through their key differences.

An idiom is a phrase that has its meaning but cannot be understood in everyday language. Idioms are expressions that have a different and more profound meaning from their literal meaning. It is used in reading, writing, and speaking to mean something other than what it says. Usually, people use it in poetry, but you can also hear these words spoken in conversations and movies.

On the other hand, proverbs are wise sayings that are used to give advice and suggestions about our daily lives. Unlike idioms, proverbs use literal meanings. There are also a lot of common proverbs to learn, but we will focus on idioms in this blog. If you want to read about traditional Korean proverbs, you can check out this blog.

Here is an example expression that can help you understand the difference between proverbs and idioms more: No pain, no gain (Korean idiom) and Work hard to get what you want (Korean Proverb).

Common Korean Idioms

If you have watched at least one Korean movie or Korean drama, you might have heard some Korean idioms that surely inspired or motivated you. So, let’s widen your knowledge about Korean idioms. Here are some idioms with the words’ literal translation in English.

Korean Idioms Geurime Ttok

1. 그림의 떡 (Geurime Ttok)

Literal Translation: Rice cake in a picture

Meaning: Something you long for but are unable to get or cannot afford

Do you ever dream of something you can’t still achieve until now? Well, the best idiom to describe that thing is “Rice cake in a picture (그림의 떡 Geurime Ttok).” Rice cakes are one of the staples in Korean cuisine. If the English language has bread and butter, the Koreans have rice cakes.

Rice cakes are mostly eaten as snacks but are also served at celebrations and formal occasions. Rice cakes also symbolize fortune and giving, so using them in the context of this Korean idiom is ideal.

Korean Idioms Sigeun Juk Mokkki

2. 식은 죽 먹기 (Sigeun Juk Mokkki)

Literal Translation: Like eating cold porridge

Meaning: It’s a piece of cake/ It’s a cinch to accomplish/ It’s easy as pie.

This Korean idiom is the opposite of the previous one. Since a rice porridge is easy to prepare and digest, it’s a perfect thing to use in the Korean idiom “식은 죽 먹기 (Sigeun Juk Mokkki)” which means a task or job that can be easily accomplished.

Korean Idioms Nuni Noptta

3. 눈이 높다 (Nuni Noptta)

Literal Translation: Eyes are high

Meaning: having unrealistically high standards or expectations/ lofty expectations

Korean parents have high standards for their children that can be unrealistic or lofty sometimes. The idiom that Koreans use for having high standards is 눈이 높다 (Nuni Noptta).

4. 눈이 뒤집히다 (Nuni Dwijipida)

Literal Translation: One’s eyes turn upside down

Meaning: to be mad, insane/ to exhibit madness or insanity

Do you remember how Mi-ho got mad at Hye-in when she tried to hurt her? Mi-ho’s eyes turned upside down, considering she’s a gumiho. She was even called “scary eyes” by the chicken vendor.

This may be only a Korean drama, but it pretty much explains how the meaning of the idiom 눈이 뒤집히다 (Nuni Dwijipida). When you’re outraged, your eyes can tell it. You can be blinded by your madness, just like when Park Saeroyi faced the person who accidentally killed his father.

5. 눈이 맵다 (Nuni Maeptta)

Literal Translation: Spicy eyes

Meaning: Your eyes are hurting

If you’re fun of the American series F.R.I.E.N.D.S, the expression 눈이 맵다 (Nuni Maeptta) is the best idiom to use for Phoebe’s iconic line “My eyes! My eyes!” But, if you want a Korean version utilizing the context of this idiom, the perfect example is when Hae-Kang’s eye injury took a serious turn in the K-drama “Racket Boys.”

6. 눈코 뜰 새 없다 (Nunko Tteul Sae Optta)

Literal Translation: I don’t have time to open my eyes and nose

Meaning: You’re pressed for time and can’t afford to waste it.

This Korean expression is very relevant to Korean culture. They are known for their Pali-Pali Culture, which means getting things done so there can be no time wasted.

Korean Idioms Gajaeneun Ge Pyonira

7. 가재는 게 편이라 (Gajaeneun Ge Pyonira)

Literal Translation: The crayfish sides with the crab

Meaning: Those who are like stick together./ Like-minded individuals tend to stick together.

The Korean equivalent of the English idiom “Birds with the same feather flock together.” This is a company literal translation that conveys that people with certain features or characteristics tend to stick together. The perfect example is the cast of Boys Over Flowers Joon-pyo, Ji-hoo, Woo-bin, and Yi-jeong. They are called F4 and are all rich, handsome, and have powerful families, so they tend to think alike.

Korean Idioms Kkorireul Chidaheundeulda

8. 꼬리를 치다/흔들다 (Kkorireul Chidaheundeulda) /

Literal Translation: To flick/Wag one’s tail

Meaning: an act of flattery or enticement

Remember when Mi-ho (from My Girlfriend is a Gumiho) felt excited and flattered when Dae-wong was doing nice things for her? She told Dae-wong that her tail would pop out. This is a perfect example to explain this idiom.

Korean Idioms Barameul Nota

9. 바람을 넣다 (Barameul Nota)

Literal Translation: To put air in/inflate

Meaning: to energize, motivate, spur on, or induce

When you’re feeling down, having someone who will put air in you is important, just like when Yu-rim was criticized for competing as a Russian citizen for fencing in Twenty-Five Twenty-One. The idiom that Koreans use for that kind of situation is 바람을 넣다 (Barameul Nota).

Korean Idioms Baega Apeuda

10. 배가 아프다 (Baega Apeuda)

Literal Translation: Stomach hurts

Meaning: To be incredibly envious/jealous

In K-dramas, you see a lot of scenes where they are getting jealous, like the Dong-man in Fight For My Way, Kang Mo-yeon, and Myeong-joo in Descendants of the Sun, and of course, Hong Du-sik in Hometown-Cha-Cha-Cha.

The Korean idiom 배가 아프다 (Baega Apeuda) may be used in these situations, but it is often used in the more serious levels of jealousy, like when you see someone close to you succeed in life, and it feels like a punch in a gut for you. The perfect example is when Won Hae-yo got jealous of Sa Hye-jun when his career took off.

Korean Idioms Parireul Nalrida

11. 파리를 날리다 (Parireul Nalrida)

Literal Translation: Have flies buzzing around everywhere

Meaning: No customers / Slump

Calling all Reply 1988 fans. Did you notice someone, even one person, bought a clock from the clock shop of Choi Taek’s dad? If not, the Korean idiom for that is “파리를 날리다 (Parireul Nalrida).”

12. 서울에서 김서방 찾기 (Soureso Gimsobang Chatkki)

Literal Translation: Like trying to find Mr. Kim in Seoul

Meaning: Something that is impossible or extremely difficult to find

If you are asked to write Korean people having Kim as their last name, you’ll probably have a long one. This is because 21.5% of the population of South Korea has Kim as their surname, making it the most common surname in the country.

With this, it’s a perfect analogy when something is extremely difficult or impossible to find. The Korean expression is “Like trying to find a needle in a haystack.” One excellent example is when the soldiers from North Korea went to South Korea to find Captain Ri. For a city as big as Seoul, it’s tough to find a person without having much information.

13. 가슴에 못을 박다 (Gaseume Moseul Baktta)

Literal Translation: To hammer a nail into the heard

Meaning: To hurt someone emotionally

Did you also cry out when Dal-mi from the K-drama Start-Up discovered that Ji-pyeong and Do-san lied to her? Although it happened unintentionally, it hurt Dal-mi emotionally. So, this is a perfect situation to use the idiom 가슴에 못을 박다 (Gaseume Moseul Baktta).

14. 개천 에서 용났다 (Gaechon Eso Yongnattta)

Literal Translation: A dragon was born in a stream

Meaning: Someone who comes from a small town with an average background but has done very well.

If you have watched the K-drama Record of Youth, you have surely witnessed how Sa Hye-jun reached his dreams of becoming a great actor despite being poor and having many personal problems. Even though he has no financial support and connections like Hae-yo, he still managed to become one of the best actors. This is an example of a situation where you can use the idiom 개천 에서 용났다 (Gaechon Eso Yongnattta)

Korean Idioms Gimchitkkukpputo Masiji Malra

15. 김칫국부터 마시지 말라 (Gimchitkkukpputo Masiji Malra)

Literal Translation: Don’t drink the kimchi soup first.

Meaning: You should wait until what you want happens.

Since kimchi soup is traditionally served as a digestive aid in South Korean cuisine, it is best consumed after the main dish has been thoroughly consumed. This proverb states that you should not expect too early but wait until the scheduled outcome occurs before taking action. ‘Don’t count your chickens before they’ve hatched!’ is a brave literal translation of English idiomatic phrases.

Korean Idioms Giga Makhida

16. 기가 막히다 (Giga Makhida)

Literal Translation: One’s energy becomes stuck or blocked

Meaning: to not be able to say anything when you hear something crazy

Remember when Lee Dam discovered that Shin Woo-yeo is a gumiho? How about when Deok-sun and Dong-Ryong heard that Sun-woo got back with Bo-ra? Have you noticed how they have become speechless? Well, you can say that their energy becomes stuck 기가 막히다 (Giga Makhida).

Korean Idioms Gwi Ppajinnal

17. 귀 빠진날 (Gwi Ppajinnal)

Literal Translation: The day one’s ear was pulled out

Meaning: Your birthday

This is an interesting Korean idiom because it’s rare for a country to refer to birthdays this way. This Korean phrase more or less translates to “your birthday,” since when you were born, your entire body, including your ears, was expelled from your mother’s womb.

Korean Idioms Namui Tteogi Deo Keoboinda

18. 남의 떡이 더 커보인다 (Namui Tteogi Deo Keoboinda)

Literal Translation: Other’s rice cakes look even bigger   

Meaning: Someone who constantly wants what they don’t have

This is another Korean idiom that includes rice cake. This is used to describe a person who always thinks what they don’t have looks better than what they do. Someone who is constantly comparing their lives to other people around them. This idiom can teach someone how to be grateful for what they have.

Korean Idioms Geumgangsando Sikhugyeong

19. 금강산도 식후경 (Geumgangsando Sikhugyeong)

Literal Translation: You can enjoy Mount Geumgang after eating

Meaning: You can’t enjoy something great if you’re hungry.

If you aren’t completely satisfied, you won’t be able to get the most out of anything, no matter how remarkable it is. Whatever the case, if you aren’t fully satisfied, you will be unable to appreciate it truly. But what does Mount Geumgang have to do with this?

North Koreans have always revered Mount Geumgang for its stunning views, dating back to ancient times. As a result, your mind will be drawn to your empty stomach, and you will miss out on the beauty of the mountains.

20. 고래 싸움에 새우 등 터진다 (Gorae Ssaume Saeu Deung Teojinda)

Literal Translation: When whales fight, the shrimp’s back is broken 

Meaning: The innocent suffer when two giants fight.

The Korean peninsula has suffered a lot during different wars, and a strong proof of that is the separation of North and South Korea. Koreans often use this idiom to talk about how their country is taken advantage of by its bigger, stronger neighbors.

Korean Idioms Wonsungido Namueseo Tteoreojinda

21. 원숭이도 나무에서 떨어진다 (Wonsungido Namueseo Tteoreojinda)

Literal Translation: Even monkeys can fall from the trees

Meaning: It’s okay to fall or make mistakes, but you need to get back up./ Mistakes happen.

Korean dramas like Start-up, Law School, Twenty Five Twenty One, Itaewon Class, and Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha remind us that it’s okay to make mistakes sometimes as long as you keep trying. If you want to give this as advice to another person, you can say 원숭이도 나무에서 떨어진다 (Wonsungido Namueseo Tteoreojinda).

Korean Idioms Eolguri Dukkeopda

22. 얼굴이 두껍다 (Eolguri Dukkeopda)

Literal Translation: Having a thick face

Meaning: Shameless

We all know people/people in our lives who are not ashamed or embarrassed to do anything. It can refer to people not being ashamed of showing their true personality to Deok-sun’s personality in Reply 1988. A thick face might look cute in some situations, but there are also situations where being shameless can be too negative, which isn’t good in conservative Korean culture.

Korean Idioms Miyeokgugeul Meokda

23. 미역국을 먹다 (Miyeokgugeul Meokda)

Literal Translation: You ate seaweed soup

Meaning: To fail a test

We all know how complex the Korean education system is, so tests are a big deal. They even go to cram schools just to avoid “eating seaweed soup” or, in simple terms, failing a test. But why do Koreans use seaweed soup?

Seaweed soup has a slimy texture. Koreans often say that they “slipped off” a test when they didn’t do well on it. So, if you say you ate seaweed soup, it means you failed an exam or think you did.

Korean Idioms Sijagi Banida

24. 시작이 반이다 (Sijagi Banida)

Literal Translation: The beginning is half

Meaning: Well-started is half-done.

If you have decided to do something, start it properly by planning and making good decisions. Put your heart into it and do it as perfectly as you can because if you’re just doing something to finish it, you’ll waste your time and effort when something goes wrong.

Other Korean Idioms

A little bit hungry/feeling hungry
Literal translation: Bored mouth
입이 심심하다ibi simsimhada
Not good at keeping secrets.
Literal translation: Having a light mouth
입이 가볍다ibi gabyeopda
I can’t wait to tell a secret you’ve been thinking about
Literal translation: Itchy mouth
입이 근질근질 하다ibi geunjilgeunjil hada
To lack mercy or to behave in a ruthless manner
Literal translation: No blood or tears
피도 눈물도 없다pido nunmuldo eopsda
Seeing red; You’re so mad that you can’t see
straight or you can’t think straight.
Literal translation: Eyes facing backward
눈이 뒤집히다nuni dwijiphida
Cheat on your partner
Literal translation: Sell one eye
한눈 팔다hannun palda
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder
Literal translation: Glasses in your eyes
제 눈에 안경이다je nune angyeongida
Having a sense of the pressure
Literal translation: Heavy shoulders
어깨가 무겁다eokkaega mugeopda
Starting something new excites you,
or you’re eager to see how it turns out.
(Ants in one’s pants)
Literal translation: Itchy hands
손이 근질근질 하다soni geunjilgeunjil hada
To clear your name of anything
Literal translation: Wash your hands
손을 씻다soneul ssisda
Moving quickly.
Literal translation: Your feet are on fire
발등에 불이 떨어지다baldeunge buri tteoreojida
Literal translation: Stretch your legs
발을 뻗다bareul ppeotda
same meaning as
“When you talk about the sun, it shines.”

Literal translation: The tiger appears if you mention it
호랑이도 제 말하면 온다horangido je malhamyeon onda
Don’t try to be like everyone else.
Literal translation: You need to know your limits
사람은 분수를 알아야 한다sarameun bunsureul araya handa
To be blinded by something
Literal translation: Going blind
눈이 멀다nuni meolda
To have terrible taste in something
Literal translation: To not have eyes for something
보는눈 없어boneunnun eopseo
Feeling relieved
Literal translation: Rubbing on the chest
가슴을 쓸어내리다gaseumeul sseureonaerida
Feeling anxious
Literal translation: Having an itchy chest
가슴이 두근거리다gaseumi dugeungeorida
Being nagged
Literal translation: Having a nail hammered into your ear
귀에 못이 박히다gwie mosi bakhida
To spoil the mood
Literal translation: Throw cold water on it
찬물을 끼얹다chanmureul kkieonjda
Good things come in small packages
Literal translation: The small pepper is spicy
작은 고추가 맵다jageun gochuga maepda
You get what you pay for.
Literal translation: Things that are cheap are dreg cakes (rice cakes made from remains of bean curd)
싼 게 비지떡이다ssan ge bijitteogida
Laughter is the best medicine
Literal translation: Laughter is the best healer
웃음은 최고의 명약이다useumeun choegoui myeongyagida
You can read my mind and figure out what’s wrong.
Literal translation: Giving a scratch to an itchy place
가려운 곳을 긁어 주다garyeoun goseul geulkeo juda 
Things never go exactly as planned.
Literal Translation: When you want to find even dog dung to use as medicine, you can’t find it
개똥도 약에 쓰려면 없다gaettongdo yage sseuryeomyeon eopda
Think carefully before you do something
Literal translation: Before you jump, look at the first stone.
돌다리도 두들겨 보고 건너라doldarido dudeulgyeo bogo geonneora
To criticize
Literal Translation: The dog that is covered in dung reprimands the dog that is covered in the chaff.
똥 묻은 개가 겨 묻은 개 나무란다ttong mudeun gaega gyeo mudeun gae namuranda
(ttong mudeun gaega gyeo mudeun gae namuranda)
Events to come show signs before it happens.
Literal translation: If you continue to fart, you will eventually defecate on yourself.
방귀가 잦으면 똥 싸기 쉽다banggwiga jajeumyeon ttong ssagi swipda
Not willing to say you were wrong
Literal translation: The one who farted is the most enraged.
방귀 뀐 놈이 성낸다banggwi kkwin nomi seongnaenda
The one who is lacking in substance brags the most loudly.
Literal Translation: An empty cart rattles loudly
빈 수레가 요란하다bin surega yoranhada
If you keep doing something, you will get caught at some point.
Literal translation: There is a good chance that someone will finally get their hands on your tail
꼬리가 길면 잡힌다kkoriga gilmyeon japhinda
Someone is brave and maybe even reckless.
Literal translation: Liver comes out from the belly
간이 배 밖으로 나오다gani bae bakkeuro naoda
Even if you step on a worm, it will wiggle. Literal Translation: Even a worm will wiggle if you step on it지렁이도 밟으면 꿈틀한다jireongido balpeumyeon kkumteulhanda (jireongido balbeumyeon kkumteulhanda)
A person with a lot of friends and connections.
Literal translation: Having wide feet
발이 넓다bari neolpda
Literal translation: Your stare is making your neck longer.
목이 빠지게 기다리다mogi ppajige gidarida
To do something painful or unpleasant quickly so that the pain won’t last long.
Literal translation: Cry and eat wasabi
울며 겨자 먹기ulmyeo gyeoja meokgi
Rumors have always had some basis in truth.
Literal Translation: If there is no fire, will smoke come out of the chimney?
아니 땐 굴뚝에 연기 날까ani ttaen gulttuge yeongi nalkka
Every problem has a way out.
Literal Translation: It doesn’t matter if the sky falls. There’s a way out.
하늘이 무너져도 솟아날 구멍이 있다haneuri muneojyeodo sosanal gumeongi itda
You can tell if a tree will be good from its young age.
Literal translation: Genius manifests itself from an early age
될성부른 나무는 떡잎부터 알아본다doelseongbureun namuneun tteogipbuteo arabonda
The frog has no recollection of his previous life as a tadpole.개구리 올챙이 적 생각도 못 한다gaeguri olchaengi jeok
saenggakdo mot handa
Asking someone to do something
when you know they won’t do it right or will do the opposite because that’s who they are.
Literal Meaning: Let the cat take care of the fish.
고양이에게 생선을 맡기다goyangiege saengseoneul matgida
Keep your cool even when things look bad. Literal Meaning: Even if a tiger is biting you, you can still live if you wake up.호랑이에게 물려가도 정신만 차리면 산다horangiege mullyeogado jeongsinman charimyeon sanda
A person goes from being poor to being wealthy.
Literal Translation: From the stream, a dragon rises
개천에서 용 난다gaecheoneseo yong nanda
No moss will grow on a rolling stone.
Literal Translation: A rolling stone gathers no moss
구르는 돌에는 이끼가 끼지 않는다gureuneun doreneun ikkiga kkiji anneunda
It’s difficult to be furious with someone who is smiling.
Literal Translation: A smiling face can’t be spit on.
웃는 얼굴에 침 뱉으랴unneun eolgure chim baeteurya
There’s a right way to do everything.
Literal Meaning: The top and bottom are filled with cold water.
찬물도 위아래가 있다chanmuldo wiaraega itda
Sometimes, people need help.
Literal Translation: You can only dance when the jangu (drum) is played
장구를 쳐야 춤을 추지janggureul chyeoya chumeul chuji
You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink
Literal Translation: You can give people chances but can’t make them take them.
말을 냇가에 끌고 갈 수는 있어도 억지로 물을 먹일 수는 없다mareul naetgae kkeulgo gal suneun isseodo eokjiro mureul meogil suneun eopda
Jack of all trades, master of none
Literal Translation: Someone with many skills can’t do any of them well.
재주가 많은 사람은 뭐 하나 제대로 하는게 없다jaejuga maneun sarameun mwo hana jedaero haneunge eopda
More valuable rewards in exchange for hard, sometimes painful work.
Literal Translation: Delight comes at the end of difficulty
고생 끝에 낙이 온다gosaeng kkeute nagi onda
A calm response deflects angry outbursts.
Literal Translation: One word pays back a debt of a thousand nyang
말 한마디에 천냥 빚을 갚는다mal hanmadie cheonnyang bijeul gamneunda
It doesn’t help to feel bad about things that have already happened/ A person who tries to fix things after something terrible has happened.
Literal Translation: Fix the barn after losing the cow
소 잃고 외양간 고치기so ilko oeyanggan gochigi

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