Words That Defined Korea in 2021

Words That Defined Korea in 2021

Housing price. Soul-collection. Open-run. Popular phrases say much about how a society functions, and here is a list of some striking Korean ones from 2021.

Se-Woong Koo
Se-Woong Koo

Even for native speakers the Korean language can be a challenge. Take for instance eojjeoltibi ์–ด์ฉ”ํ‹ฐ๋น„. Reportedly popular among children but now widespread, it functions in the same way as the phrase eojjeorago ์–ด์ฉŒ๋ผ๊ณ , meaning "what do you want me to do?" The endingโ€”tibi ํ‹ฐ๋น„ (TV)โ€”adds an extra layer, such that these four syllables end up signifying "what do you want me to do? Why don't you go watch TV instead [or something]?"

In a recent SNL Korea skit starring actress Shin Hye-sun (of the drama Mr. Queen fame), the phrase eojjeoltibi is at the center of a battle of wits and neologisms between two high school students. It's OK if you don't understand itโ€”even many native Korean speakers wouldn't.

Not all Korean phrases are as esoteric (or new), but language is at the heart of how contemporary Korean society functions, and in this very last issue of the KOREA EXPOSร‰ newsletter in 2021, I offer a selection of keywords, not all of them new, that capture the country's current zeitgeist (no Covid-related content here because that would be depressing).

jipgap ์ง‘๊ฐ’

Housing price. If there is one topic that captured the Korean imagination in 2021 (and 2020 for that matter), it was the explosive growth of real estate prices. Lack of affordable housing put real pressure on the government despite multiple attempts by president Moon Jae-in's administration to control the market. Anecdotes of married couples who fought over ill-conceived decisions to buy or sell apartments (buying when it was too expensive or selling before the price peaked) and ended up divorcing were common throughout the year.

Example: ์˜† ๋™์— ์‚ฌ๋Š” ์‹ ํ˜ผ๋ถ€๋ถ€๋Š” ์ง‘๊ฐ’ ๋•Œ๋ฌธ์— ์‹ธ์šฐ๋‹ค๊ฐ€ ๊ฒฐ๊ตญ ์ดํ˜ผํ–ˆ์–ด. (The newly married couple living in the building next door divorced in the end after fighting over the real estate price.)

yeongggeul ์˜๋Œ

Can you imagine putting up your soul as a loan collateral? That's how many Koreans describe the act of scraping together one's every last asset in order to buy a home. Yeonghon ์˜ํ˜ผ means "soul" and ggel ๋Œ is short for ggeureomoeunda ๋Œ์–ด๋ชจ์€๋‹ค, a compound verb that means to "assemble by the act of scraping". Of course, nobody is being asked to leverage one's soul in reality; it just implies that one uses every bit of cash in possession and maxes out one's credit to seal the deal. It's really only used in one contextโ€”buying a home.

Example: ์˜๋Œํ•ด์„œ ์•„ํŒŒํŠธ ํ•œ ์ฑ„๋Š” ์‚ฌ์•ผ์ง€ ์•Š์•„? (Shouldn't we scrape together even our souls to buy an apartment?)

gasang hwapye ๊ฐ€์ƒํ™”ํ

It stands for "virtual currency" or, in more natural English, cryptocurrency. Koreans went wild for this new investment scheme, and some apparently did very well, making hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars. If they sold at the peak in November, that is. The prices have since depreciated by about 30 percent.

Example: ๊ฐ€์ƒํ™”ํ์— ํˆฌ์žํ•ด์•ผ ์ง‘์ด๋ผ๋„ ํ•œ ์ฑ„ ์‚ฌ์ง€? (How could you afford to buy a home if you don't even invest in cryptocurrency?)

jonbeo ์กด๋ฒ„

It's short for jotna beotida ์ขƒ๋‚˜ ๋ฒ„ํ‹ฐ๋‹ค, meaning "fucking hold out" and usually used in connection with investment. If you poured your entire savings into bitcoins but the prices are falling, the advice is to jonbeo. If you did yeongggeul to buy that apartment and the market is bottoming out, the best thing is to, well, jonbeo, because you never know whether the prices will shoot up again.

It's a kind of mantra for ordinary investors who got into the market without thinking too hard about the consequences. They want to believe that the prices will always rise, and that immense wealth is within reach. As long as they jonbeo.

Example: ๋น„ํŠธ์ฝ”์ธ ๊ฐ€๊ฒฉ ๋‚ด๋ ธ๋‹ค๊ณ  ์‹ค๋งํ•˜์ง€ ๋งˆ. ์กด๋ฒ„ํ•˜๋ฉด ๋‹ค์‹œ ์˜ค๋ฅผ ๊ฑฐ์•ผ. (Don't get disappointed because the Bitcoin price fell. If you fucking hold out, it will rise again.)

gaseongbi ๊ฐ€์„ฑ๋น„ / gasimbi ๊ฐ€์‹ฌ๋น„

Gaseongbi is a familiar term meaning "price-to-performance ratio" (combing the first syllable each of gagyeok ๊ฐ€๊ฒฉ + seongneung ์„ฑ๋Šฅ + biyeul ๋น„์œจ ). Even two, three years ago Koreans referred to it as the main factor in deciding whether something was worth buying.

But this idea of caring about the intrinsic value of a good or service is no longer in fashion if we go by the more commonly used term these days: gasimbi ๊ฐ€์‹ฌ๋น„. It means "price-to-heart ratio": as long as one is subjectively happy with the purchase, it's worth it.

We can think of it as an extension of the "Yolo" trend that gripped Korea four years ago. "Yolo" is short for "you only live once" and was used to explain a perceived tendency of young Koreans to focus on immediate gratification at the expense of any durable future.

Example: ์ƒค๋„ฌ ๋ฐฑ์ด ๋น„์‹ธ๊ธฐ๋Š” ํ•˜์ง€๋งŒ ๊ฐ€์‹ฌ๋น„๊ฐ€ ๋” ์ค‘์š”ํ•˜์ง€. ๊ทธ๋ƒฅ ์‚ด ๊ฑฐ์•ผ. (Chanel handbags may be expensive, but more important is the price-to-heart ratio. I will just buy it.)

Trending in South Korea: YOLO and One-day Classes
South Korea can be an innovative trendsetter when it comes to fashion, technology and pop culture. But when it came to YOLO, the country was a relatively late adopter of the catchphrase โ€œyou only live once.โ€ Itโ€™s about five years late, and the YOLO trend comes with a twist.

opeun-reon ์˜คํ”ˆ๋Ÿฐ (open-run)

Complementing the new gasimbi trend is the curious phenomenon of opeun-reon that many Korean media outlets are documenting. It refers to the behavior of Koreans who wait hours (if not overnight) by department store entrances so that they can rush inside at the opening hour to grab products that are newly available at luxury brand boutiques like Chanel or Gucci. Do you get it? They are running in as the store opens.

On the one hand, the prices of such luxury products are said to keep on rising, so they make for good investment. On the other hand, there is a mentality that one might as well buy such expensive fashion goods because there isn't much else to save for. They are also great for showing off on social media.

Example: ์˜ค๋Š˜ ์ €๋… ๋ฐค์ƒˆ์›Œ๋ผ๋„ ๋‚ด์ผ ์ƒค๋„ฌ ์˜คํ”ˆ๋Ÿฐ์€ ๊ผญ ํ•  ๊ฑฐ์•ผ. (Even if I have to stay up all night tonight, I will for sure do an open-run at the Chanel boutique tomorrow.)

peullekseu ํ”Œ๋ ‰์Šค (flex)

Flexing is defined by the Urban Dictionary as "the act of bragging about money-related things, such as about how much money you have, or about expensive possessions like designer clothing. Often done by young kids and DoucheTubers."

Add Koreans to that list, too. It's unclear why this behavior became so acceptable in Korea or how the word itself entered the contemporary Korean lexicon as peullekseu, but certain credit must go to the Korean song of the same name from 2018.

Some say that the Korean reality show Show Me the Money, which has run since 2012 and pits rappers against one another in an audition format, has also played a role. It popularized the hip hop trop of "swag", which is synonymous in Korea with making money and showing off.

Removed from Context: The Unbearable Lightness of Korean Hip Hop
While I was surfing the web I came across an image making fun of Korean hip hop: โ€œTypical Korean hip hop.jpg. Rapper gets pissed at nothing.โ€ (Source: User “Gaedrip” via online community Clien) Of course, this is a joke. Hip hop is mainstream in South Korea.

Example: ์š”์ฆ˜ ๋‹ค ์ธ์Šคํƒ€์—์„œ ํ”Œ๋ ‰์Šค ํ•˜๋Š”๋ฐ ๋‚˜๋งŒ ๊ฐ€์ง€๊ณ  ์™œ ๊ทธ๋ž˜? (Everyone does flexing on Instagram, so why do you make an issue of me doing the same?)

hokangseu ํ˜ธ์บ‰์Šค

Hokangseu combines the words hotel ํ˜ธํ…” and bakangseu ๋ฐ”์บ‰์Šคโ€”vacance in Frenchโ€”to mean a vacation spent at a hotel inside the country.

The concept of sojourning at a hotel near home was around even before the pandemic began, but it's been taken to another level in the last two years. Moneyed Koreans are desperate to vacation abroad but can't so easily, not with the coronavirus around. That's why they opt for this new form of domestic 'travel'.

Indeed, 5-star hotels and Instagrammable guesthouses in and around the capitals are supposedly full on weekends and holidays.

Example: ์˜ฌํ•ด๋Š” ์œ ๋Ÿฝ ์—ฌํ–‰ ๋ชป ํ–ˆ์œผ๋‹ˆ๊นŒ ์ตœ์†Œํ•œ ํ˜ธ์บ‰์Šค ์ •๋„๋Š” ํ•ด์ค˜์•ผ ํ•˜๋Š” ๊ฑฐ ์•„๋‹ˆ์•ผ? (Since we couldn't go to Europe this year, shouldn't we at least do a hotel vacation?) ย 

gaseuraiting ๊ฐ€์Šค๋ผ์ดํŒ… (gaslighting)

You may recall actress Seo Ye-ji who rose to stardom in last year's K-romcom It's OK Not to Be OK. She was embroiled in a gaslighting scandal back in April after text messages surfaced appearing to show her controlling her ex-boyfriend (another actor, Kim Jung-hyun) psychologically.

It brought the idea of psychological manipulation and abuse to the forefront and the Korean public were both outraged and mesmerized, perhaps because it's not so unusual. In a country where emotional blackmail is common (e.g. a mother telling a child, 'Just think of all the sacrifices I made to raise you properly'), the term gave a name to what might already have been a widespread phenomenon.

Example: ๋‚ด ์‚ฌ์ดŒ ๋‚จ์นœ ๋ณด๋ฉด ์ •๋ง ๊ฐ€์Šค๋ผ์ดํŒ… ํ•˜๋Š” ๊ฒƒ ๊ฐ™์•„. ์‚ฌ๋žŒ์„ ๋ง‰ ๋“ค์—ˆ๋‹ค ๋†จ๋‹ค ํ•œ๋‹ค๋‹ˆ๊นŒ. (When I look at my cousin's boyfriend, it's clear he is really gaslighting [her]. He controls her every which way possible.)

Daeggae-Moon ๋Œ€๊นจ๋ฌธ / Daeggae-Yoon ๋Œ€๊นจ์œค

Popular webtoon artist Gian 84 appeared to mock the president's followers in January by showing a delivery worker who cracks his head open after falling from shock at the skyrocketing housing price in Korea.

Will you stick by your favorite politician even if your head splits from it? That's how supporters of president Moon Jae-in are mocked by the political opposition. Daeggae-Moon is short for daegari ga ggaejeodo Moon Jae-inโ€”"even if my head cracks open, [I am for] Moon Jae-in".

This proper noun supposedly originates with a Moon Jae-in supporter who held up the very phrase on a tablet device at a rally, but it's come to be used as an insult suggesting that Moon Jae-in's followers aren't right in their heads.

While the usage has been around since Moon took power in 2017, it's given rise to another pejorative proper noun in recent weeksโ€”Daeggae-Yoonโ€”in reference to those who rally around the opposition's main presidential candidate, Yoon Seok-youl.

Example: ๋Œ€๊นจ๋ฌธ์ด๋‚˜ ๋Œ€๊นจ์œค์ด๋‚˜ ๋‹ค ๊ฑฐ๊ธฐ์„œ ๊ฑฐ๊ธฐ์ง€. (Whether it's Moon supporters or Yoon supporters, they are all the same.)

em-ji sedae MZ์„ธ๋Œ€ (MZ generation)

Where Elders Are Denture-Clacking Vermin
Teul-ttak-chung. Over the last five years, I have heard many Korean neologisms for insulting different demographic groups, but this one seems to top all the others. It means more or less how it sounds: denture-wearing elderly people clacking away their artificial teeth as they spew rage at myriad peโ€ฆ

Generational divides certainly aren't a new thing (read above a take on the situation from 2019), but there is a sense that the emerging group of young Koreans (especially those born in the late nineties and after) are a curious species that defies all logic and expectation. Many articles were written this year in Korean about this so-called "MZ Generation" (those born between 1981 and 2012) for seemingly contravening all conventions of Korean society.

It's a way for Korean media to telegraph anxiety and uncertainty about the future. Korea as a country is aging fast, and the social and economic structures in place appear certain to crumble. What will young Koreans do in response? That's the billion-won question.

Example: MZ ์„ธ๋Œ€๋Š” ์ดํ•ดํ•˜๋ ค๊ณ  ํ•ด๋„ ์ดํ•ดํ•  ์ˆ˜๊ฐ€ ์—†์–ด. (Try as one may, it's not possible to understand the MZ generation.)

See you again in 2022.