Even for native speakers the Korean language can be a challenge. Take for instance eojjeoltibi 어쩔티비. Reportedly popular among children but now widespread, it functions in the same way as the phrase eojjeorago 어쩌라고, meaning "what do you want me to do?" The ending—tibi 티비 (TV)—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]?"
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 EXPOSÉ 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).
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: 옆 동에 사는 신혼부부는 집값 때문에 싸우다가 결국 이혼했어. (The newly married couple living in the building next door divorced in the end after fighting over the real estate price.)
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 영혼 means "soul" and ggel 끌 is short for ggeureomoeunda 끌어모은다, 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 context—buying a home.
Example: 영끌해서 아파트 한 채는 사야지 않아? (Shouldn't we scrape together even our souls to buy an apartment?)
gasang hwapye 가상화폐
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: 가상화폐에 투자해야 집이라도 한 채 사지? (How could you afford to buy a home if you don't even invest in cryptocurrency?)
It's short for jotna beotida 좃나 버티다, 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: 비트코인 가격 내렸다고 실망하지 마. 존버하면 다시 오를 거야. (Don't get disappointed because the Bitcoin price fell. If you fucking hold out, it will rise again.)
gaseongbi 가성비 / gasimbi 가심비
Gaseongbi is a familiar term meaning "price-to-performance ratio" (combing the first syllable each of gagyeok 가격 + seongneung 성능 + biyeul 비율 ). 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 가심비. 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: 샤넬 백이 비싸기는 하지만 가심비가 더 중요하지. 그냥 살 거야. (Chanel handbags may be expensive, but more important is the price-to-heart ratio. I will just buy it.)
opeun-reon 오픈런 (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: 오늘 저녁 밤새워라도 내일 샤넬 오픈런은 꼭 할 거야. (Even if I have to stay up all night tonight, I will for sure do an open-run at the Chanel boutique tomorrow.)
peullekseu 플렉스 (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.
Example: 요즘 다 인스타에서 플렉스 하는데 나만 가지고 왜 그래? (Everyone does flexing on Instagram, so why do you make an issue of me doing the same?)
Hokangseu combines the words hotel 호텔 and bakangseu 바캉스—vacance in French—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: 올해는 유럽 여행 못 했으니까 최소한 호캉스 정도는 해줘야 하는 거 아니야? (Since we couldn't go to Europe this year, shouldn't we at least do a hotel vacation?)
gaseuraiting 가스라이팅 (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: 내 사촌 남친 보면 정말 가스라이팅 하는 것 같아. 사람을 막 들었다 놨다 한다니까. (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 대깨문 / Daeggae-Yoon 대깨윤
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-in—"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 weeks—Daeggae-Yoon—in reference to those who rally around the opposition's main presidential candidate, Yoon Seok-youl.
Example: 대깨문이나 대깨윤이나 다 거기서 거기지. (Whether it's Moon supporters or Yoon supporters, they are all the same.)
em-ji sedae MZ세대 (MZ generation)
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 세대는 이해하려고 해도 이해할 수가 없어. (Try as one may, it's not possible to understand the MZ generation.)
See you again in 2022.