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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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).
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 an 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.
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."
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.
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.
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 making nice things for her? She told Dae-wong that her tails would pop out. This is a perfect example to explain this idiom.
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).
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.
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.
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)."
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.
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 where to use the idiom 가슴에 못을 박다 (Gaseume Moseul Baktta).
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)
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.
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).
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.
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.
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 has 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.
Literal Translation: When whales fight, the shrimp’s back is broken
Meaning: The innocent suffers 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.
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 an advice to another person, you can say 원숭이도 나무에서 떨어진다 (Wonsungido Namueseo Tteoreojinda).
Literal Translation: Having a thick face
We all know people/people in our lives that 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.
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.
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.
|입이 심심하다||ibi simsimhada||A little bit hungry/feeling hungry |
Literal translation: Bored mouth
|입이 가볍다||ibi gabyeopda||Not good at keeping secrets. |
Literal translation: Having a light mouth
|입이 근질근질 하다||ibi geunjilgeunjil hada||I can't wait to tell a secret you've been thinking about |
Literal translation: Itchy mouth
|피도 눈물도 없다||pido nunmuldo eopsda||To lack mercy or to behave in a ruthless manner |
Literal translation: No blood or tears
|눈이 뒤집히다||nuni dwijiphida||Seeing red; You're so mad that you can't see |
straight or you can't think straight.
Literal translation: Eyes facing backward
|한눈 팔다||hannun palda||Cheat on your partner |
Literal translation: Sell one eye
|제 눈에 안경이다||je nune angyeongida||Beauty is in the eye of the beholder |
Literal translation: Glasses in your eyes
|어깨가 무겁다||eokkaega mugeopda||Having a sense of the pressure |
Literal translation: Heavy shoulders
|손이 근질근질 하다||soni geunjilgeunjil hada||Starting something new excites you, |
or you're eager to see how it turns out.
(Ants in one’s pants)
Literal translation: Itchy hands
|손을 씻다||soneul ssisda||To clear your name of anything |
Literal translation: Wash your hands
|발등에 불이 떨어지다||baldeunge buri tteoreojida||Moving quickly. |
Literal translation: Your feet are on fire
|발을 뻗다||bareul ppeotda||Relax|
Literal translation: Stretch your legs
|호랑이도 제 말하면 온다||horangido je malhamyeon onda||same meaning as |
"When you talk about the sun, it shines."
Literal translation: The tiger appears if you mention it
|사람은 분수를 알아야 한다||sarameun bunsureul araya handa||Don't try to be like everyone else. |
Literal translation: You need to know your limits
|눈이 멀다||nuni meolda||To be blinded by something |
Literal translation: Going blind
|보는눈 없어||boneunnun eopseo||To have terrible taste in something |
Literal translation: To not have eyes for something
|가슴을 쓸어내리다||gaseumeul sseureonaerida||Feeling relieved |
Literal translation: Rubbing on the chest
|가슴이 두근거리다||gaseumi dugeungeorida||Feeling anxious |
Literal translation: Having an itchy chest
|귀에 못이 박히다||gwie mosi bakhida||Being nagged |
Literal translation: Having a nail hammered into your ear
|찬물을 끼얹다||chanmureul kkieonjda||To spoil the mood|
Literal translation: Throw cold water on it
|작은 고추가 맵다||jageun gochuga maepda||Good things come in small packages |
Literal translation: The small pepper is spicy
|싼 게 비지떡이다||ssan ge bijitteogida||You get what you pay for.|
Literal translation: Things that are cheap are dreg cakes (rice cakes made from remains of bean curd)
|웃음은 최고의 명약이다||useumeun choegoui myeongyagida||Laughter is the best medicine |
Literal translation: Laughter is the best healer
|가려운 곳을 긁어 주다||garyeoun goseul geulkeo juda||You can read my mind and figure out what's wrong. |
Literal translation: Giving a scratch to an itchy place
|개똥도 약에 쓰려면 없다||gaettongdo yage sseuryeomyeon eopda||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
|돌다리도 두들겨 보고 건너라||doldarido dudeulgyeo bogo geonneora||Think carefully before you do something |
Literal translation: Before you jump, look at the first stone.
|똥 묻은 개가 겨 묻은 개 나무란다||ttong mudeun gaega gyeo mudeun gae namuranda |
(ttong mudeun gaega gyeo mudeun gae namuranda)
Literal Translation: The dog that is covered in dung reprimands the dog that is covered in the chaff.
|방귀가 잦으면 똥 싸기 쉽다||banggwiga jajeumyeon ttong ssagi swipda||Events to come show signs before it happens. |
Literal translation: If you continue to fart, you will eventually defecate on yourself.
|방귀 뀐 놈이 성낸다||banggwi kkwin nomi seongnaenda||Not willing to say you were wrong|
Literal translation: The one who farted is the most enraged.
|빈 수레가 요란하다||bin surega yoranhada||The one who is lacking in substance brags the most loudly. |
Literal Translation: An empty cart rattles loudly
|꼬리가 길면 잡힌다||kkoriga gilmyeon japhinda||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
|간이 배 밖으로 나오다||gani bae bakkeuro naoda||Someone is brave and maybe even reckless. |
Literal translation: Liver comes out from the belly
|지렁이도 밟으면 꿈틀한다||jireongido balpeumyeon kkumteulhanda (jireongido balbeumyeon kkumteulhanda)||Even if you step on a worm, it will wiggle. Literal Translation: Even a worm will wiggle if you step on it|
|발이 넓다||bari neolpda||A person with a lot of friends and connections. |
Literal translation: Having wide feet
|목이 빠지게 기다리다||mogi ppajige gidarida||Bored |
Literal translation: Your stare is making your neck longer.
|울며 겨자 먹기||ulmyeo gyeoja meokgi||To do something painful or unpleasant quickly so that the pain won't last long. |
Literal translation: Cry and eat wasabi
|아니 땐 굴뚝에 연기 날까||ani ttaen gulttuge yeongi nalkka||Rumors have always had some basis in truth.|
Literal Translation: If there is no fire, will smoke come out of the chimney?
|하늘이 무너져도 솟아날 구멍이 있다||haneuri muneojyeodo sosanal gumeongi itda||Every problem has a way out. |
Literal Translation: It doesn't matter if the sky falls. There's a way out.
|될성부른 나무는 떡잎부터 알아본다||doelseongbureun namuneun tteogipbuteo arabonda||You can tell if a tree will be good from its young age. |
Literal translation: Genius manifests itself from an early age
|개구리 올챙이 적 생각도 못 한다||gaeguri olchaengi jeok |
saenggakdo mot handa
|The frog has no recollection of his previous life as a tadpole.|
|고양이에게 생선을 맡기다||goyangiege saengseoneul matgida||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.
|호랑이에게 물려가도 정신만 차리면 산다||horangiege mullyeogado jeongsinman charimyeon sanda||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.|
|개천에서 용 난다||gaecheoneseo yong nanda||A person goes from being poor to being wealthy. |
Literal Translation: From the stream, a dragon rises
|구르는 돌에는 이끼가 끼지 않는다||gureuneun doreneun ikkiga kkiji anneunda||No moss will grow on a rolling stone. |
Literal Translation: A rolling stone gathers no moss
|웃는 얼굴에 침 뱉으랴||unneun eolgure chim baeteurya||It's difficult to be furious with someone who is smiling. |
Literal Translation: A smiling face can't be spit on.
|찬물도 위아래가 있다||chanmuldo wiaraega itda||There's a right way to do everything. |
Literal Meaning: The top and bottom are filled with cold water.
|장구를 쳐야 춤을 추지||janggureul chyeoya chumeul chuji||Sometimes, people need help. |
Literal Translation: You can only dance when the jangu (drum) is played
|말을 냇가에 끌고 갈 수는 있어도 억지로 물을 먹일 수는 없다||mareul naetgae kkeulgo gal suneun isseodo eokjiro mureul meogil suneun eopda||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.
|재주가 많은 사람은 뭐 하나 제대로 하는게 없다||jaejuga maneun sarameun mwo hana jedaero haneunge eopda||Jack of all trades, master of none |
Literal Translation: Someone with many skills can't do any of them well.
|고생 끝에 낙이 온다||gosaeng kkeute nagi onda||More valuable rewards in exchange for hard, sometimes painful work. |
Literal Translation: Delight comes at the end of difficulty
|말 한마디에 천냥 빚을 갚는다||mal hanmadie cheonnyang bijeul gamneunda||A calm response deflects angry outbursts. |
Literal Translation: One word pays back a debt of a thousand nyang
|소 잃고 외양간 고치기||so ilko oeyanggan gochigi||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
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