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Some Quite Interesting Korean folk expressions

QI LogoThe witty comedy quiz show QI is now in its 11th series for the BBC, focusing on Quite Interesting facts connected with things that begin with the letter K. Plenty of scope for things Korean to crop up, then.

In the episode that screened on 21 September, a series of Korean folk expressions came up. Or alleged Korean folk expressions anyway. Maybe Korean readers can confirm their authenticity. We are indebted to the British Comedy Guide website for summarising the episode.

Everyone’s favourite expression is bound to be “He disappeared like a fart through hemp pyjamas”. Some of the other phrases discussed are similarly self-explanatory: “The other man’s rice cake always looks bigger” and “If there are too many ferrymen on a boat, it will sail up a mountain” do not require much imagination to think of the English equivalent.

Other phrases require a bit of explanation: “When will I eat your noodles?” is apparently equivalent to “When are you getting married?”.

Those that are familiar with the patrilineal obligations of Korean families will be able to hazard a guess that “He worked as if he were tending the grave of his wife’s uncle” means that the person applied himself with little enthusiasm or effort.

Other phrases mentioned are rather homely, for example “Showing off your wrinkles to a silkworm” (Teaching your grandmother to suck eggs), “You wouldn’t notice even if a friend at the same table died” (The food is damn good) and “My eyebrows are on fire” (I’m in a desperate situation).

But “Pummelling a dead monk” I find puzzling. It is apparently equivalent to “Flogging a dead horse”. One can see that flogging a live horse is something one might want to do to encourage extra speed or effort, and that flogging a dead one is not going to produce the same results. But what possible use is pummeling a live monk?

Any suggestions gratefully received.

4 thoughts on “Some Quite Interesting Korean folk expressions

  1. Showing off your wrinkles in front of a silkworm is a comment on humility – that one shouldn’t show off in front of an expert.

  2. “The other man’s rice cake always looks bigger”, “You wouldn’t notice even if a friend at the same table died” and “If there are too many ferrymen on a boat, it will sail up a mountain” are all genuine expressions I’ve come across when studying Korean. The second one, in fact, was Konglishified in the windows of a BBQ restaurant near an old house of mine. If I recall rightly, it said “TWO MAN EAT, ONE MAN DIE, I DON’T KNOW”. At that time, I’d never heard the expression before, so it didn’t seem to be the most inviting advert for the restaurant…

  3. Han Eui-jong I simply ADORE Korean proverbs. I wonder though if the mentioned ‘hemp pymamas’ one is correct. The translation might have come from a saying in 감쪽같이 사라지다. 감 is a cloth, material, among other meanings and 쪽 can be a ‘piece, part, segment, cut, slice. But here it is different. It is adverb 감쪽같이 meaning ‘ in a blink or without being noticed’. 사라지다 is ‘disappear. Also there are couple more I want to add in the main section when I can read the article in full. THANKS for many interesting articles
    27 October at 18:51

    Philip Gowman Yes, please give me some more!
    27 October at 18:54

    Han Eui-jong Noodle signifies longevity as it is long hahaha! To wish a couple tying the knot longevity together, wedding reception services noodle in clear broth. that is why.

    The ‘wrinkles to a silkworm’ one has similar sayings such Shovelling in front of an excavator. Yawing in front of hippopotamus Passing wind in front of a skunk. A day old puppy is not afraid of a tiger.

    eyebrows on fire? It used to be like 발등에 불이 떨어졌다 (on top of my foot, fire, fell) i.e. My foot caught on fire. I never heard 눈썹 (eyebrow) used in that sense.

    I wonder what “pummelling a deadmonk’ connotes. Do you think it means ‘a lost cause’ or ‘useless’ as however hitting a dead monk would not make the monk be alive and do his usual duties i.e. chant, self-endure onesefl, train, heal or serve others any more?
    27 October at 19:31

    Olly Terry Philip Gowman – If you’re interested in Korean proverbs & expressions, there’s a great book called ‘서울에서 김서방 찾기” (Looking for a Mr. Kim in Seoul) by Sang-Hun Choi. It is explains both the literal and figurative meanings & also often explains the history/origin of each phrase.
    27 October at 20:20

    Philip Gowman Thanks! Not available at under that name, but do you think it’s the same book as this: link.

    How Koreans Talk

    How Koreans Talk Edition: reprint
    27 October at 20:57

    Olly Terry Hmmm it seems it’s only available from the US Amazon site: link

    Looking for a Mr Kim in Seoul

    Looking for a Mr. Kim in Seoul: A Guide to Korean Expressions
    Gain insights into Korea’s culture through idioms, slang and proverbs.
    27 October at 21:06

    Philip Gowman Yes, but looking at the subject and the coauthors, it looks as if the two could be exactly the same publication. I might try the UK book as it’s ridiculously cheap
    27 October at 21:08

    Philip Gowman Actually, I’m sure it is. The US print says copyright 2002 & 2007. And the UK book is 2002. So I think Looking for Mr Kim is a tarted-up reprint.
    27 October at 21:10

    Olly Terry Ok, good to know. Hope you enjoy the book as much as I did.
    27 October at 21:12

    Philip Gowman Just looking at the first few pages of the US book. I think that’s where the QI Elves got their material
    27 October at 21:13

    Olly Terry I think you’re right, all of the phrases you listed (from QI) sounded familiar.
    27 October at 21:14

    Philip Gowman Bought. Mine for 87p (+£2.80 P&P).
    27 October at 21:18

    Olly Terry Can’t argue with those prices!

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