Daebak! The OED gets a K-update

Daebak! The OED gets a K-update

K-pop, K-drama, K-beauty, K-food, K-style—these days, everything seems to be getting prefixed with a K- as South Korea’s popular culture continues to rise in international popularity. South Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s film Parasite made history by becoming the first non-English-language film to win a Best Picture Oscar, K-pop acts like BTS and Blackpink are global music superstars with legions of devoted fans, Korean beauty products are flying off the shelves everywhere in the world, and Korean style is now seen as the epitome of cool. We are all riding the crest of the Korean wave, and this can be felt not only in film, music, or fashion, but also in our language, as evidenced by some of the words and phrases of Korean origin included in the latest update of the Oxford English Dictionary.

The oldest K-word in this OED update is of course the one that K- stands for: Korean. First added to the OED in its 1933 supplement, the dictionary’s entry for both the nominal and adjectival uses of Korean has now been fully revised. The place name Korea has been used in English from the beginning of the 17th century, and its demonym soon followed, with the adjective appearing earliest in a 1614 letter written by Richard Cocks, the head of a British East India Company trading post in Japan, and the noun referring to a person from Korea first appearing in Peter Heylyn’s 1621 geographical book Microcosmus. Originally spelled Corean, the word did not acquire its current spelling with an initial K until the 1800s, and it is also in this century when the noun referring to the Korean language is first seen in print. The English words Korea and Korean come from the Korean word Goryeo (also transliterated as Koryŏ), the name of a kingdom in East Asia (including a large part and eventually all of the Korean peninsula), originally a shortened form of Goguryeo, the name of the largest of the Three Kingdoms of Korea, which merged in the 10th century. In 1392, the place name in Korean was changed to Joseon and in 1897 to Han– (in Daehan, literally ‘Great Korea’), but the form based on the earlier name Goryeo continued in use in other languages, including English.

Several centuries later, in the late 1990s, Korean was shortened to simply K- and combined with other words to form nouns relating to South Korea and its popular culture. The oldest of these formations, K-pop, first appears in an article in the 9 October 1999 issue of Billboard magazine. It was first included in the OED in 2016 and revised as part of the current update. But before K-pop, there was trot (first attested 1986)a genre of Korean popular music that originated in the early 1900s during the Japanese occupation of Korea. Trot is an interesting reborrowing—it comes from the –trot in foxtrot, after the Korean word teuroteu, which itself is shortened from pokseu teuroteu, a borrowing into Korean of the English word foxtrot.

An entry for K-drama has also been newly added to the OED, with a first quotation dated 2002 taken from the Singaporean newspaper The Straits Times. Fans of such recent international television hits as the romantic comedy Crash Landing on You, the fantasy police procedural Signal, and the historical zombie thriller Kingdom know that despite its name the K-drama can be of any genre.

It was the success of K-pop and K-dramas that initially fuelled the rise of international interest in South Korean pop culture, a phenomenon that is now so widespread that it has not one but two names that have just entered the OED: hallyu and Korean wave, both first seen in 2001. Hallyu, a borrowing from Korean, also means ‘Korean wave’ when literally translated, and it is now also being used in English to refer to South Korean pop culture and entertainment itself, not just its increasing popularity.

Korean food features prominently in this update, with new entries being added for the following:

  • banchan (first attested 1938) – a small side dish of vegetables, etc., served along with rice as part of a typical Korean meal.
  • bulgogi (1958) – a dish of thin slices of beef or pork which are marinated then grilled or stir-fried.
  • dongchimi (1962) – a type of kimchi made with radish and typically also containing napa cabbage.
  • galbi (1958) –a dish of beef short ribs, usually marinated in soy sauce, garlic, and sugar, and sometimes cooked on a grill at the table.
  • japchae (1955)– a dish consisting of cellophane noodles made from sweet potato starch, stir-fried with vegetables and other ingredients, and typically seasoned with soy sauce and sesame oil.
  • kimbap (1966)– a Korean dish consisting of cooked rice and other ingredients wrapped in a sheet of seaweed and cut into bite-sized slices.
  • samgyeopsal (1993) – a Korean dish of thinly sliced pork belly, usually served raw to be cooked by the diner on a tabletop grill.

The entry for the most iconic Korean dish of them all, kimchi, first attested in 1888 and originally added to the OED in 1976, has also just been fully revised. Another notable reborrowing is a food term—chimaek (2012), borrowed from the Korean chimaek, which combines the chi– in chikin with the maek– in maekju. Maekju is the Korean word for ‘beer’, while chikin is a Korean word borrowed from the English word chicken, although in Korean chikin only means ‘fried chicken’ and not the live animal. The use of chimaek in English goes back to 2012, but this combination of fried chicken and beer was popularized outside South Korea by the 2014 K-drama My Love from the Star. The lead character on this fantasy rom-com, played by top South Korean actress Jun Ji-hyun, constantly craved and snacked on chimaek, thus starting a Korean fried chicken craze in China and other Asian countries where the show was a huge hit.

Words referring to older features of Korean culture are also included in this update. There are new entries for hanbok (first attested 1952), the traditional Korean costume worn by both men and women; and the Korean martial art Tang Soo Do (1957). There are also revised entries for Hangul (1935), the name of the Korean alphabet; Kono (1895), a Korean game of strategy; sijo, the name both for a type of Korean classical vocal music (1896) and a Korean verse form (1948); and taekwondo (1962), another widely practiced Korean martial art.

Also making it into this batch are the words aegyo (1997), a certain kind of cuteness or charm considered characteristically Korean, similar to the Japanese word kawaii; manhwa (1988), a Korean genre of cartoons and comic books; mukbang (2013), a video featuring a person eating a large quantity of food and talking to the audience; and the typical Korean expression daebak (2009), an interjection expressing enthusiastic approval used in a similar way to ‘fantastic!’ and ‘amazing!’. The update also includes a set of respectful forms of address and terms of endearment used in Korean-speaking contexts. Noona (1957) is used by a male speaker to address or refer to his older sister or older female friend; oppa (1963)by a female speaker to address or refer to her older brother, older male friend, or boyfriend; and unni (1997) by a female speaker to address or refer to her older sister or older female friend. The last two words, however, have undergone a noteworthy semantic change when used outside of Korea. In the K-pop and K-drama fandom, unni is often used by fans of all genders to address a Korean actress or singer they admire, while in Southeast Asia, oppa is also used to refer to an attractive South Korean man, especially a famous actor or singer (2009). The OED entry for this new sense of oppa quotes a Twitter post from earlier in 2021 naming South Korean actors Lee Min-ho, Park Seo-joon, Lee Jong-suk, and Ji Chang-wook as the ‘ultimate oppas’.

Danica Salazar and Dr Doh Wonyoung at KU’s Centre of Lexicography
OED World English Editor Danica Salazar at the Research Institute of Korean Studies’ Centre for Lexicography in 2018, with the Centre’s Deputy Director Dr Doh Wonyoung

Not all of the words in this Korean batch are borrowings, reborrowings, or loan translations from Korean. Several others are new formations or new senses of existing English words. The interjection fighting!, for instance, is used to express encouragement, incitement, or support—another way to say ‘go on!’ or ‘go for it!’. In PC bang (1999), the English initialism PC for ‘personal computer’ is combined with the Korean word for ‘room’, bang, to form a compound that signifies an establishment with multiple computers providing access to the internet for a fee, usually for gaming. The word skinship (1966) is a blend of two English words, skin and kinship, following the model of the Korean word seukinsip and the earlier Japanese word sukinshippu. It is used especially in Japanese and Korean contexts to refer to the touching or close physical contact between parent and child or between lovers or friends, viewed as a means to express affection or strengthen an emotional bond. It is also now fairly common to see parents outside of Korea or Japan in online forums talking about the role of skinship in good parenting, or K-drama fans recommending a series for the good skinship scenes between its romantic leads, or K-pop fans gushing over the latest display of skinship between members of their favourite group.

The work carried out by OED editors on this latest batch of Korean additions and revisions benefited from the insight of the dictionary’s friends and research partners in South Korea and the UK. In the OED library is a copy of the latest edition of the standard dictionary of Korean published by the National Institute of Korean Language (NIKL), brought to the OED as a gift by NIKL lexicographers on a visit to the dictionary’s offices at Oxford University Press. This visit was returned years later when the OED presented its ongoing research on Korean-origin words in English to an audience of South Korean dictionary editors in an event held in the NIKL offices in Seoul. The OED also gave a similar presentation at Korea University (KU), hosted by one of the dictionary’s Korean-language consultants, KU Professor of Korean Linguistics Shin Jiyoung, and made a visit to the Centre of Lexicography of KU’s Research Institute of Korean Studies. In Oxford, the OED has participated in a workshop sponsored by the National Library of Korea and organized by the dictionary’s other Korean-language consultant, Dr Jieun Kiaer, Young Bin Min-KF Associate Professor of Korean Language and Linguistics at Oxford University’s Oriental Institute. In this workshop, students of Korean helped identify words of Korean origin for possible inclusion in the OED, and some of their historical findings have even led to antedatings for some of the words in this current update. More recently, an initiative by KERIS, a South Korean governmental organization which promotes and supports education, has given South Korean universities, schools, and other education institutions full access to OED Online.

Danica Salazar with Oxford University students of Korean who helped identify words of Korean origin for possible inclusion in the OED
Students of Korean language attending a lexicography workshop at Oxford University Press in 2017, in which they helped identify words of Korean origin for possible inclusion in the OED

Although hallyu is now a worldwide phenomenon, it had its beginnings in Asia, particularly in South Korea’s neighbours in East and Southeast Asia. Indeed, many of the Korean words in this update have been used earliest in East and Southeast Asian publications written in English. The word hallyu itself can ultimately be traced back to the Chinese word hánliú, whose apparent earliest use is in 1998 in Taiwan. South Korea is a country whose cultural and consumer products are highly sought after in the region, and the way it sells these products to countries in Asia and beyond is through the global lingua franca that is English. That is how a country where English is not a majority language, and where it plays no official role, can have such an impact on modern English vocabulary. The adoption and development of these Korean words in English also demonstrate how lexical innovation is no longer confined to the traditional centres of English in the United Kingdom and the United States—they show how Asians in different parts of the continent invent and exchange words within their own local contexts, then introduce these words to the rest of the English-speaking world, thus allowing the Korean wave to continue to ripple on the sea of English words.

Words of Korean origin added to the OED in the September 2021 update

Newly revised Korean entries in the September 2021 update

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