How Korean Slang Words Discourage Individuality and Voice

Do some words we use every day somehow contribute to a harmful culture, without anyone knowing or intending it? Follow writer Hope Yoon as she discusses Korean culture and language.

The English-only policy at KIS does little more than to make students quiet down a little when they pass a teacher in the hallway. Understandable, given how deeply rooted most students are in their native culture. You can take a child to the States for a few years, take away the school uniform, and take away the Korean curriculum, but ultimately, you can’t take the Korean away from the kid. So for the majority of the school, the dictionary of Korean slang terms is a necessity for surviving the trials of social life. It seems pretty harmless, even when used as lighthearted insults— after all, if it gets the whole class to laugh, how bad could it be?

But there is a pattern here. While Korean culture has both its charms and chains, the teen lingo in particular seems to enforce only the harmful byproducts of a society based on Confucianism. The prime example is “나대다”, which loosely means “to act up”. But there is a specific nuance here not captured by the English translation— one of putting people down if they speak out or express themselves in a way separate from the masses. A student who asks four questions in a row in class, simply to satisfy their curiosity. A student who cheers unusually vigorously at a pep rally. A student with flashy clothing. All could be put down in a single strike with the label “나댄다”.

A slightly more crass and somewhat outdated synonym is “깝치다”, which is, incidentally, often used to criticize an underclassman who opposes an upperclassman in any way. Yes, even Korea’s age-old emphasis on seniority status bleeds its way into slang usage.

One insult hugely popularized in the last couple years is “관종”, or attention-seeker. This word teaches teenagers that it is not okay to garner too much attention; that one should strive to be soft-spoken, to blend into the crowd without disturbing the established fluidity of conformity. Not only do people call each other a “관종” for going against the status quo, this also makes people doubt themselves. One often observes a fellow student wondering if they should say something in the group chat or post something on social media for fear of coming across as a so-called attention seeker. This subconsciously oppresses willingness to be different, or to be true to one’s identity and expression. And besides, why should people take this as a criticism anyway? Don’t we all seek some form of attention from other people? Isn’t that just human nature?

The list goes on and on. Someone who goes out of their way to help another, even when genuinely acting out of altruism, could be criticized for their “오지랖”. Someone who takes a subject seriously during conversation, or poses a heavy question could be called a “진지충”, which is a term for someone who is “too serious”. A literal translation is “serious bug”. Consider an example— if you hear a passively sexist remark and decide to address it seriously by pointing out the offensiveness of that comment, you are suddenly reduced to an “insect”.

Everything boils down to an all-encompassing term. “눈치”, or the ability to tactfully pick up others’ unspoken opinions and feelings. We are supposed to always be hyper-alert of what other people think of how we act and what we say. We are supposed to be careful. Of course, we need some 눈치 in the sense that we need to be sensitive of how others feel, and it is practical to be able to tactfully steer a conversation. But sometimes, our culture places too large an emphasis on being someone that has 눈치— but how will we live our lives the way we want to live it if we are forever thinking about how other people live theirs?

Slang words may seem harmless. After all, they are only names to label existing patterns of behavior. But names are never just names— words carry a world of magic, dirt, and history, accumulated from every situation that word has been used in. Language is a shifting, palpable manifestation of culture. Once you create a name for something, that concept becomes a real and concrete presence in that society. And a powerful, catchy name combined with a harmful connotation is a dangerous concoction. It then permeates throughout society to silently shift people’s viewpoints. I am not arguing this is a uniquely Korean thing— consider the term “pussy”, which at once promotes hyper-masculinity and misogyny. The existence of that word wrongfully connects femininity to cowardice and shame, and this exercises an influence on society, no doubt.

Language is a powerful tool, and perhaps we should take more care in choosing when and how we use it. Once in a while, I believe we should feel free to throw away our 눈치. To be unafraid of being someone that acts out, someone that gets attention, someone that knows how to be serious, or just plain different.

다르다고 손가락질받지 않는 사회가 되었으면 하는 바램입니다.

-Jisoo Hope Yoon (‘19)

Special thanks to the members of Project Echo, whose discussion largely inspired this article.

One thought on “How Korean Slang Words Discourage Individuality and Voice”

  1. An interesting look on how culture affects language and vise versa. Language can be a powerful tool. Korean especially has a way of expressing certain idead with certain nuances many other languages can’t. Not only is a push towards removing negative language important, but perhaps a focus on the positives of Korean, of which there are many, is crucial.

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