An introduction to words of Korean origin

An introduction to words of Korean origin

The OED includes dozens of words originating in the Korean language and/or related to Korea. Although the oldest of these words are attested in English as early as the 17th century, most of the words of Korean origin in the dictionary entered the language relatively recently, in the latter half of the 20th century and early part of the 21st century. The current influx of Korean-origin words into English is due largely to a phenomenon called hallyu or the Korean wave—the increase in international interest in South Korea and its popular culture, especially as represented by the global success of South Korean music, film, television, fashion, and food. This rise in popularity of South Korean culture, which began in the 1990s in East and South-east Asia, had become a worldwide phenomenon by the 2010s, driven largely by the success of various forms of Korean entertainment on social media and video-sharing platforms.

South Korea’s cultural and consumer products are highly sought after in Asia and beyond, and it is through English, the global lingua franca, that it sells these products to the rest of world. 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 current K- trend, encompassing K-pop, K-drama, K-beauty, K-food, and K-style, introduces new vocabulary that is quickly adopted by English speakers across the globe.

Most of the words of Korean origin in the OED are borrowings from the Korean language which refer to various elements of Korean culture, for example:

  • aegyo, n. and adj. (first attested 1997) – cuteness or charm, esp. of a sort considered characteristic of Korean popular culture; behaviour regarded as cute, charming, or adorable.
  • banchan, n. (1938) – a small side dish of vegetables, etc., served along with rice as part of a typical Korean meal.
  • bulgogi, n. (1958) – a dish of thin slices of beef or pork which are marinated then grilled or stir-fried.
  • daebak, int. (2009) – expressing enthusiastic approval: ‘fantastic!’, ‘amazing!’
  • Hangul, n.2 (1935) – the Korean alphabet, which consists of characters representing consonants and vowels composed in part of smaller elements representing phonetic features such as place of articulation, which are combined into larger units representing syllables.
  • japchae, n. (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, n. (1966)– a Korean dish consisting of cooked rice and other ingredients wrapped in a sheet of seaweed and cut into bite-sized slices.
  • oppa, n. (1963) – a girl’s or woman’s elder brother; a respectful form of address or term of endearment, and in extended use with reference to an older male friend or boyfriend; an attractive South Korean man, esp. a famous or popular actor or singer.
  • taekwondo, n. (1962) – a Korean martial art particularly characterized by the use of a combination of kick movements in combat, and widely practised as a sport.
  • unni, n. (1997) – a girl’s or woman’s elder sister; a respectful form of address or term of endearment, and in extended use with reference to an older female friend or an admired actress or singer.

Other Korean-origin words recorded by the OED are formed within English through various processes such as affixation, compounding, loan blending, and conversion from one part of speech to another:

  • fighting, int. (2002) – expressing encouragement, incitement, or support: ‘Go on!’ ‘Go for it!’.
  • K-pop, n. (1999) – a genre of popular music originating in Korea, combining elements of traditional Korean music with Western musical influences, characterized by the frequent use of English phrases in Korean song lyrics, and typically performed by young solo acts or groups whose complex dance routines and distinctive, colourful fashions are designed to appeal to an international audience.
  • PC bang, n. (1999) – an establishment with multiple computer terminals providing access to the internet for a fee, usually for gaming.
  • skinship, n. (1966) – touching or close physical contact between parent and child or (esp. in later use) between lovers or friends, used to express affection or strengthen an emotional bond.

The opinions and other information contained in the OED blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.

Comments