February 10, 2021

In this article, I will be introducing you to some of the funniest idioms in the Korean language.

As you are aware, idioms are words or phrases that can have figurative meanings that are completely different from the literal meaning of the words. 

Some examples of idioms in the U.S. are phrases like raining cats and dogs, out of the blue, dead as a doornail, hold your horses, cool as a cucumber, etc.

Similar to the above-mentioned idioms, there are countless idioms in the Korean language that people use on a regular basis. I have picked out 12 of them that I think you will find very interesting. 

1. 들었다 놨다 - to play with the heartstrings

들었다 놨다 [드러따 놔따] literally translates as “pick up and put down (repeatedly).” 

Usually, this phrase has to do with the pitter-patter of the heart. Figuratively, it means “playing with heartstrings,” or “making the heart go pitter-patter.”

Example:

사랑은 우리의 심장을 들었다 놨다 합니다.

Love picks up and puts down our hearts (plays with our heartstrings).

There’s a popular K-pop song called “들었다 놨다” made popular by Sunny Hill and Daybreak in 2013. Take a look at the fun music video!

2. 깨가 쏟아지다 - to be obviously in love

깨가 쏟아지다 [깨가 쏘다지다] literally translates as “sesame seeds rain down.”

This phrase usually refers to a romantic couple’s close relationship that is obvious to the observer. The reference to sesame seeds came from the harvesting of the seeds.  Check out this YouTube link that explains the phrase (dialogue is in Korean). The video also explains further where the phrase originated. This phrase is a bit tricky to translate, but the closest figurative meaning I can come up with is “obviously in love.”

Example:

그들은 깨가 쏟아지는 신혼 부부예요.

They are a newlywed couple with falling sesame seeds (obviously in love).

3. 귀신이 곡할 노릇이다 - to be clueless or caught unaware

귀신이 곡할 노릇이다 [귀시니 고칼 노르시다] literally translates as “a ghost will cry over this matter,” meaning that even a ghost will be frustrated enough to cry. 

This phrase is used when something unexpected happens that puzzles everyone.

Example:

분명히 일분 전까지만 해도 바로 여기에 있었는데 귀신이 곡할 노릇이네요.

It was here just a minute ago, and a ghost will cry over this (I’m clueless as to what happened.)

4. 나사가 풀리다 - to be unfocused

나사가 풀리다 literally translates as “the screw becomes loose.” However, the Korean phrase has a slightly different meaning than the English “loose screw.” 

The English phrase indicates an abnormal mental state, but the phrase in Korean is used when concentration is off and one loses focus. It is a relaxed mental state rather than abnormal.

Example:

감기 띠문에 나사가 약간 풀렸어요.

Because of my cold, my screw is a little loose (my focus is a little off).

5. 눈에 넣어도 아프지 않다 - the apple of my eye

눈에 넣어도 아프지 않다 [누네 너어도 아프지 안타] literally translates as “does not hurt even when inserted into the eye.”

Korean people use this expression to talk about someone they love dearly, such as their children. The phrase is similar to “the apple of my eye” in English.

Example:

이 아이는 눈에 넣어도 아프지 않을 딸이에요.

This child is my daughter who wouldn’t hurt even if put into my eyes. (This child is my daughter who is precious to me.)

6. 바가지를 긁다 - to nag someone

바가지를 긁다 [바가지를 긁따] literally translates as “to scratch a bowl.” 

This phrase is used to describe the act of nagging someone, especially between a married couple. Specifically, it usually refers to the wife nagging the husband.

Example:

집에 있으면 마누라가 하루종일 바가지를 긁어요.

When I stay home, my wife scratches a bowl (nags me) all day long.

Cultural background:

The traditional Korean “바가지" is a bowl made out of a gourd. You can see photos of them in this article on The National Folk Museum of Korea’s website

According to an article in Whitepaper, a Korean newspaper, the phrase “바가지를 긁다” came from a time in Korean history when cholera was common (before modern sanitation). When someone got infected with cholera, people used to call upon a priestess to perform a ceremony to chase the bad spirits away. 

The ceremony involved scratching a 바가지 vigorously to make a lot of noise. It was believed that the loud and obnoxious noise would be effective in chasing the disease away.

“바가지를 긁다” became a phrase to describe obnoxious and annoying noise and, eventually, synonymous with “nagging.”

Fascinating, don’t you think?

7. 바가지를 쓰다/씌우다 - to rip someone off

This phrase also has to do with 바가지 (bowl made out of a gourd).  쓰다 means “to wear on head,” and 씌우다 means “to put on/over someone or something else.”  So the two phrases literally translate as:

바가지를 쓰다 - To wear a bowl on one’s head

바가지를 씌우다 - To put a bowl over someone’s head

The figurative meaning of this phrase is to get ripped off or to rip someone off.

Example:

차을 급하게 사느라 바가지를 썼어요.

I put a bowl over my head (got ripped off) because I was in a hurry to buy a car.

그 가게 주인이 손님들한테 바가지를 씌웠어요.

The store owner put a bowl over (ripped off) the customers.

8. 하늘이 노랗다 - to not see clearly

하늘이 노랗다 [하느리 노라타] literally translates as “the sky is yellow.”

This phrase is used to describe the state of not being able to see clearly because of fatigue or shock.

Example:

갑자기 해고를 당해서 하늘이 노래지네요.

The sky is turning yellow because I got fired suddenly.

하루종일 굶었더니 하늘이 노랗게 보여요.

I haven’t eaten all day, and the sky looks yellow.

9. 비행기를 태우다 - to flatter someone excessively

비행기를 태우다 literally translates as “to give someone an airplane ride.”

The phrase means to overcompliment someone (insincerely). The meaning is very similar to the word “flattery.”

Example:

저를 비행기를 태우는것을 보니 다른 뜻이 있는것 같아요.

Giving me a ride on the airplane makes me think there’s an ulterior motive.

10. 김칫국을 마시다 - to assume prematurely

김칫국을 마시다 [김치꾸글 마시다] literally translates as “to drink kimchi soup.”

This phrase is very similar to the English phrase “counting chickens before they hatch,” and used when something (good) is assumed prematurely. If you assume you will be getting a gift from someone when that person has not even thought about it, you are “drinking kimchi soup.”

Example:

보너스 나온다는 소식도 없는데 김치국부터 마시지 마세요.

There is no news of a bonus, so don’t start drinking the kimchi soup.

Cultural background:

The phrase “깁치국을 마신다” is shortened from the original “떡 줄 사람은 생각도 않는데 김칫국부터 마신다.” The original phrase translates as “the person with the rice cakes is not even thinking about sharing, but you are already drinking kimchi soup.”

Rice cakes are a common Korean snack made of rice flour. The chewy and sticky rice cakes are sometimes hard to swallow without drinking something with it. Traditionally, kimchi or kimchi soup is thought to go well with snacks like rice cakes and roasted sweet potatoes (another popular snack).

So the original phrase figuratively means that someone is “counting chickens before they hatch.” 

Eventually, the shorter version “김치국을 마신다” became just as widely used.

2 Bonus Korean Idioms!

바람맞다 - to get stood up

바람맞다 [바람마따] literally translates as “to get whipped by the wind.”

This phrase is used to indicate that one was stood up by someone they were supposed to meet.

Example:

점심 먹으러 나갔다가 친구한테 바람맞았어요.

I went out to have lunch and got a wind whipping (stood up) by my friend.

파김치가 되다 / 녹초가 되다 - to be exhausted

파김치가 되다 literally translates as “to turn into green onion kimchi.”

녹초가 되다 literally translates as “to turn into a wilted plant.”

Both of the above phrases are used when someone is exhausted with no energy to stand up straight. They can be used interchangeably.

Example:

그가 하루종일 일하고 파김치가 되어서 들어왔어요.

After working all day, he came home exhausted (like green onion kimchi).

운동을 너무 심하게 했더니 녹초가 됐어요.

I exercised too hard and became exhausted (like a wilted plant).

Conclusion

Idioms in every language are extremely interesting and fun to learn, like the 12 Korean idioms I have shared above.  As I stated at the beginning of this article, there are countless others that are commonly used. Have you encountered any other idioms that you thought were funny?  

Please share any additional Korean idioms that you have learned by leaving a comment below!

열심히 공부하세요!  화이팅!!

About the author 

Linda McKenna

Linda was born in Seoul, South Korea, and moved to the U.S. as a teen. She previously taught at a Korean language school. She is a language enthusiast and loves learning about different languages and cultures

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