10 most beautiful, useful and witty Korean words

most beautiful korean words
The most beautiful Korean words can capture a wide spectrum of human emotions. Source: Ed Jones/AFP

If you’ve been on Instagram or TikTok lately, you’ve likely seen people dancing to the tunes of “Cupid” by Fifty Fifty.

Released as “The Beginning: Cupid,” the single album has caught the world by storm, particularly how well English and Korean words come together.

Take the song’s introduction, for example.

“불꺼진 romantic all my life, 내 주위는 온통 lovely day”, which roughly translates to “Bul kkeojin romantic all my life, nae juwineun ontong lovely day.”

In English, it means “Not at all romantic all my life, all around me is lovely day.”

The grammar is different, the vocabulary sounds “extremely foreign,” and there seems to be an infinite list of tricky nuances.

But as confusing as Korean words sound, learning and mastering them can be a highly rewarding experience.

korean words

South Korean President Moon Jae-in speaking during an interview with foreign news agencies at the presidential office in Seoul. Source: Ahn Jeong-won/Pool/AFP

The history of Korean words and language

Part of this lies in the fact that it’s one of the oldest languages in the world.

Today, there are about 77 million native Korean speakers — 48 million of which live in South and North Korea.

It’s also spoken by people of Korean heritage and non-Korean heritage in many countries worldwide:

  • China: Two million Korean speakers
  • US: One million Korean speakers
  • Japan: 500,000 Korean speakers

While the Korean language is taking over the world now, thanks to BlackPink, BTS and Bong Joon-ho (the director of the Oscar-winning “Parasite” film), its origins is not well-known — not even among scholars.

Some believe it belongs to the same language family as Japanese, Turkish and Mongolian.

Others believe it came from a single source or from Classical Chinese (many Korean words that are technical and its basic nouns like mountain (“san”) and river (“kang”) are borrowed from it)

It’s also likely that it was born of the various people living in the Korean peninsula in ancient times — before merging into a single race with a single language during the unifications of the sixth to 14th century.

The Korean language we know now is said to have emerged in the 15th century, with “Hangul” — its modern writing system — devised in 1443 under King Sejong’s reign.

This replaced older Korean scripts comprising Chinese characters with Korean sounds.

beautiful korean words

Korean words and language show a lot of respect to the elders. Source: Anthony Wallace/AFP

What sets the Korean language apart from the rest?

Korean words and language are unique for many reasons:

  • It’s known as a “language isolate” among linguists. This means it has never been proven to be related to any other languages or language families.
  • Hangul is one of the most scientific alphabets ever devised. It has 24 letters (14 consonants and 10 vowels)
  • Hangul is said to contribute to one of the highest literacy rates in the world.
  • Respect is a big part of Korean words and language. Its verbs denote whether you’re of inferior, equal, or superior status to who you’re speaking.
  • It ranks among the world’s hardest languages to master.

10 most beautiful, useful and witty Korean words

1. Han

“Han” is a “mutual feeling of sorrow” that’s unique and has national significance in Korea.

It’s a cultural phenomenon arising from Korea’s extensive history of attacks and civil wars from other countries in the region.

Some people describe it as Korean rage, but according to CBC Radio associate producer Eunice Kim, it encompasses many more emotions.

“Han is a response to Korea’s long history of suffering — its repeated invasion and oppression by foreign powers, like the Japanese occupation and the Korean War,” she says. 

“Some believe it runs in the blood of all Koreans and permeates Korean society, including pop culture — everything from films and books to music and TV shows.”

2. Noon-chi

“Noon-chi,” or sometimes “nuchi,” roughly translates to “eye measure,” a sort of sizing up, not of individuals but of the overall context and atmosphere of a situation.

This is applicable to just about every social setting one can be in, from a wedding to a job interview.

Practically speaking, “noon-chi” involves noticing who is speaking, who is listening, who interrupts, who apologizes, and who is rolling their eyes.

From there, you can make potentially useful assessments about the nature of relationships and hierarchies within a group, the overall mood, and how to behave accordingly — and then you apply it for the benefit of the group, not for you alone.

Koreans cultivate nunchi from a young age.

“Kids in Korea know the word by age three,” says Euny Hong, a Korean American journalist, in her new book “The Power of Nunchi: The Korean Secret to Happiness and Success.”

“You usually learn it in the negative; if everyone is standing on the right side of an escalator and a kid is lounging on the left, the parent will say, ‘Why don’t you have any nunchi?’ It’s partly about not being rude, but it’s also partly, ‘Why are you not plugged into your environment?'”

Korean words

The word “Jeong” is usually experienced through experience and tied to the warm feeling of love, sympathy and attachment between people who share an emotional or psychological bond. Source: Paul Eliis/AFP

3. Jeong 

“Jeong” has no definitive definition, not even in Korean, and the meaning is usually expressed through experience.

It is tied to the warm feeling of love, sympathy and attachment between people who share an emotional or psychological bond.

This mix of positive feelings is found in many facets of daily life in Korea and can also be applied to pets or objects of sentimental value.

Picture a philosophy built on the essence of empathy, vulnerability, kindness, and paying it forward. “Jeong” represents the opposite of “love at first sight” — it’s a magical connection that deepens gradually.

4. Aegyo

If you’re an avid K-drama or K-pop fan, you might already be familiar with this word.

It is a big trend in South Korean culture where someone acts adorably and cutesy to appear pleasant and appealing, despite not being a young child themselves.

What’s interesting is that some men also do this too — and it’s not a big deal.

Some of the famous K-drama characters who did “aegyo” are Kang Mo-yeon (“Descendants of the Sun”), Choi Ae-ra (“Fight for My Way”), and Ra Eun-ho (“School 2017”).

korean words

Want to say goodbye to your Korean friends the proper way? Try using “annyeonghigaseyo” and see how they react. Source: Martin Bernetti/AFP

5. Annyeonghigaseyo

Like the Japanese language, there are different ways to say something in various contexts.

Say you’re leaving and want to say goodbye to a friend. Koreans do not always use the same term, as it depends on whether the person they are saying goodbye to is leaving or if the listener is staying and the speaker is leaving.

If the listener is leaving, you would say “annyeonghigaseyo”, which means goodbye. An informal expression would be “jal gayo” or “jal ga” which translates to “go well.”

If your friend is staying and you’re saying goodbye, you’ll say “annyeonghigyeseyo”, which means “stay well.”

6. Gahmsahabnida

Let’s face it: there’s no better feeling than being able to show gratitude to your Korean friends in an authentic manner.

Saying “gahmsahabnida” is the most common formal way to say thanks and what you can consider your safe go-to for most situations.

The phrase is used on a general formal level, something which you’d use for strangers or those who are your seniors (in age or rank).

One informal way to say thank you is by saying “gomawo.”

There aren’t any special formality endings for this phrase, which means it’s reserved for friends, siblings, or those who are your age or younger.

korean words

Public transit is responsible for 65% of the average daily traffic of 32 million trips in the city, according to Seoul statistics. Source: Anthony Wallace/AFP

7. Sillyehamnida

When visiting Seoul, this word is useful to navigate the city’s public transportation systems, often ranked as one of the best globally. 

The immediate translation for “sillyehamnida” is asking for permission. You can use this term when you need to pass through a crowd on a packed train or bus.

In some situations, however, you might use other common expressions. 

If you are using the train and need to make your way through the other passengers to get off at your station, you can say “naerigesseumnida” which means “I’m getting off.’ 

8. Bungeobbangida

“Bungeobbangida” is a popular Korean fish-shaped pastry.

Usually, it is stuffed with a sweet red bean filling, though you might also find it served with things like shu cream or ice cream inside.

So why is this a Korean to describe two persons with common physical features?

That’s because this snack is made with a press. It results in the pastries looking similar to each other.

Of course, those who don’t speak Korean may not understand the word.

They may not understand or misinterpret it, so be careful when using this word — especially when buying fish-shaped pastries at a convenience store.

korean words

“Byul-ddong-byul” literally means “a star that poops a star.” Sourec: Yasser Al-Zayyat/AFP

9. Byul-ddong-byul

Did you know that South Koreans have an obsession with poop?

It is associated with wealth and good fortune, thanks to an old superstition that states that a person will be prosperous if he or she dreams of dung.

The fascination even comes up when you least expect it.

Imagine a shooting star.

The sight conjures up ideas of romantic starry night skies and perhaps a wish made at the sight of one.

In Korea, the word “byul-ddong-byul” literally means “a star that poops a star.”

That doesn’t sound so romantic or make you want to wish on one now.

10. Maeumeul meokda

In English, “maeumeul meokda” means “I ate my mind.”

Surprisingly, Koreans say this when they have come to a decision.

Without context, it feels weird to say that you’ve eaten your mind — which makes this one of the funniest Korean words.