By Jenna Gibson
Every language has “untranslatable words” – a word that perfectly encapsulates a feeling or situation which lacks an exact equivalent in other languages. German’s “schadenfreude” famously describes the feeling of deriving pleasure from another person’s pain.
Korean has plenty of these words. Some commonly cited examples are 정 (jung), a deep love or affection that builds up as you get to know someone, or 눈치 (noon-chi), a person’s situational awareness that allows them to act in socially acceptable ways.
Here are ten other useful Korean words that don’t have exact English equivalents.
This word is used both for its literal meaning – to describe a stuffy room or a need for fresh air – and in a more metaphorical sense. Often translated as “frustrating,” this word describes the feeling that there is no good solution to a problem, or that you can’t quite figure out what to do to remedy a situation.
For this word, as with several others on this list, we can describe the concept easily, but English lacks an equivalent word. In this case, 떨이 are the last few items at a store, the final inventory that a vendor offers at a steep discount to clear the shelves.
Ambiance is a similar concept, but 분위기 includes not just the vibe of a location but the feelings and emotions associated with that place and the people in it. A place could have a great ambiance because of its décor, but bad 분위기thanks to more intangible factors.
When is the last time you described a big bowl of stew as “refreshing?” But in Korea this concept is natural. In fact, a Korean friend once told me that once you understand how refreshing hot soup in the summer can be, you’ll truly understand Korean food culture.
This is one Korean word makes perfect sense in English, even though it would be translated with a slightly different adjective – boring or dull, for example. Nonetheless, we all know what a “bland” person looks and acts like, even if we’ve never described someone exactly that way.
Literally this word translates to “without a why.” In practice, it describes a situation that has no reason, or that is so absurd that it leaves you dumbfounded.
When I asked a Korean colleague what this word meant, she immediately laughed and said it’s something only old men use. Nonetheless, the concept is interesting for all ages. Have you ever heard that spicy food can clear your sinuses? That’s exactly the feeling that 얼큰하다 describes – the detoxifying effect of super spicy broth after a night of too much soju.
While this word can be accurately translated as “bond” or “relationship,” that doesn’t really cover the strength of the connection. It often carries a connotation of fate or destiny, that the bond was somehow predestined. This is also often when talking about the connection between married couples.
Think of the last time your leg fell asleep. “Tingling” doesn’t quite describe the painful, uncomfortable feeling fully, does it? 저리다 is a numb or tingling feeling, but adds that element of pain missing in its English equivalent.
The example my colleague used to describe this word was when a friend brings up an old wrongdoing in order to win an argument. You can’t defend against that kind of attack, and you wouldn’t expect a good friend to resort to such tactics. Another example the dictionary provided was the way a sleazy car salesmen distorts the facts to make a sale.
Jenna Gibson is the Director of Communications at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone. Jiwon Nam, an Intern at KEI and graduate student at the University of Maine, and Sang Kim, director of public affairs, also contributed to this blog.
Photo from Hyunwoo Sun’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.