Untranslatable Korean words entering the English dictionary

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Korean culture is slowly gaining a foothold in the rest of the world and, as a result, many untranslatable Korean words are becoming known even to non-native speakers. The use of certain Korean words are becoming so popular that some of them have even become part of the Oxford English dictionary. Curious to know what these words are? Then read on, but first let’s find out what led to this phenomenon.

The spread of Korean culture around the world

Thanks to mass cultural products such as K-pop and K-drama, Korea and certain words in Korean have slowly spread to the rest of the world, unconsciously becoming part of common knowledge. In particular, the most famous examples are bands like BTS, which are now popular all over the world. Last but not least, Korean food. Korean food is also appreciated by more and more people because of its unique taste and healthy ingredients, and the number of Korean restaurants abroad is increasing exponentially. Therefore, terms indicating traditional Korean dishes account for a large number of the new entries in the dictionary.

This year, 26 new Korean words have been introduced into the Oxford English dictionary. Let’s give a look at them.

Samgyeopsal, una delle parole coreane intraducibili legate al cibo entrate nel dizionario Oxford

Untranslatable Korean words related to food

As we’ve already mentioned, many of the new words added to the English dictionary that refer to Korean culture are food-related. We have:

  • banchan (from 반찬). These are typical Korean side dishes, which are served in many small plates and accompany each main course;
  • bulgogi (from 불고기). This is a beef dish marinated in soy sauce, typical of Korean cuisine;
  • chimaek (from 치맥). This is the typical combination of fried chicken and beer, much loved by Koreans and often featured in dramas. The word comes from the combination of chicken (치킨, used in Korean to indicate fried chicken and not normal chicken, which is called dalk, ) and maekju (맥주), a Korean word for beer;
  • dongchimi (from 동치미). This is a type of crispy kimchi in broth typical of the winter period;
  • galbi (from 갈비). This term refers to a meat dish made of beef ribs marinated in soy sauce;
  • japchae (from 잡채). This is a side dish of potato starch noodles seasoned mainly with vegetables and soy sauce;
  • kimbap (from 김밥). Kimbap (from 김밥) is a roll of seaweed and rice filled with other toppings that can vary between fish, meat and vegetables. It is very similar in appearance to sushi rolls and is ubiquitous at Korean street food stalls;
  • samgyeopsal (from 삼겹살). This is pork belly meat, which is usually served raw and sliced and is cooked directly at the table using a grill placed in the middle.

Among these words, you might have noticed that the famous kimchi, the typical Korean side dish made of cabbage marinated in spicy sauce, is missing. The reason is simple; the word was already in the dictionary and has only been updated in the new edition.

Korean words related to Korean culture in general

Among the untranslatable Korean words related to Korean culture that have been introduced in the Oxford dictionary, most are related to mass cultural ideas or products and others have spread thanks to them. Let’s see what they are:

  • Aegyo (from 애교). This is an excessively tender or childlike behaviour adopted in order to look cute and adorable;
  • Daebak (from 대박). It is an exclamation indicating joy and astonishment at the same time;
  • Fighting (from 화이팅 or 파이팅). The Korean word is itself derived from English, but has a different meaning from the original. It is in fact a cry of encouragement. Now, this meaning of the word, initially used only by Koreans, is also recognised by the English dictionary;
  • Hallyu (from 한류). This term symbolises the metaphorical Korean wave which, through mass cultural products, has swept over the rest of the world;
  • Hanbok (da 한복). It is the traditional Korean dress;
  • prefix K-. This is not a purely Korean term, but a prefix used in English and other languages that specifies that the following term refers to Korea. Some examples are K-pop (a term that was actually already present in full in the dictionary), K-drama, K-food;
  • K-drama. Given the popularity of Korean dramas and the numerous occurrences of the term k-drama, the expression was introduced in full in the dictionary;
  • Konglish (from 콩글리쉬). The term comes from the combination of the words korean and English and indicates hybrid expressions that mix elements of both languages;
  • Manwha (from 만화). It refers to Korean comics;
  • Mukbang (from 먹방). The correct transliteration would actually be meokbang and the term comes from the combination of the words meokda (먹다), to eat, and bang (방), room, and literally means a room in which one eats. By extension, the term has come to denote a particular kind of video that has become popular on the web lately, in which people film themselves eating;
  • Nuna (from 누나). A term that literally means older sister, but by extension can also mean an older friend or girlfriend (but only if older). However, the term can only be used by male persons;
  • Unni (from 언니, eonni). A term for an older sister or older friend that can be used by female persons;
  • Oppa (from 오빠). Term used to refer to an older brother or older friend or one’s boyfriend (but only if older). This also has the distinction of being usable only by female persons;
  • PC bang (from PC방).  Term used to refer to internet cafés;
  • Skinship. The term is originally English but in Korean has come to mean exaggerated physical contact in public;
  • Tang soo do (from 당수도), a Korean martial art;
  • Trot (from 트로트). This is a type of Korean folk music typical of the early decades of the twentieth century.

Here we are at the end of the list of untranslatable Korean words that have been introduced into the Oxford English dictionary with this year’s edition. Which of these did you already know? Let us know in the comments!

For more information on Korean language and culture, keep following the Go! Go! Hanguk blog and don’t hesitate to contact us about living and studying in Korea.

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