5 급 속담: [Yonsei University] Level 5 Sayings

Idioms are always an interesting part of a language. Some of them are so wacky, they can be a lot of fun. I have assembled 15 idioms (update: 25 now available) from my Korean class. We only receive the idiom -- no English translation. I do the translations myself. If you don't like them, go eat some 쇠똥.

1. 짚신도 짝이 있다 : there's someone out there for everyone. Literally translated, this means "even the straw shoe has a mate."

2. 수박 겉 핥기 : This means "licking the surface of the watermelon." Since you cannot taste the tasty part (the inside of the watermelon), you aren't truly experiencing the watermelon. This saying refers to skimming text -- you aren't getting the juicy, tasty part -- you're just skimming it.

3. 떡 본 김에 제사 지낸다 : Since you've seen the ddeok (rice cake), you spend [your time at] the ancestral rites [where ddeok is usually present]. This is used when you've already done something and you figure that you might as well do something else related while you're at it.

4. 사공이 많으면 배가 산으로 간다 : When there are many boatmen, the boat goes to the mountain. In other words, the boat doesn't go where it's supposed to. Too many chefs spoils the pot.

5. 배보다 배꼽이 크다 : The bellybutton is larger than the belly. In other words, the cost of doing something administrative or unrelated to the main thing is more than the thing itself. For example, if you buy a $25 present for someone and spend $50 in shipping and handling, the bellybutton (the S&H) is bigger than the belly (the present itself).

6. 정들자 이별이라 : This is a good one for a foreigner in Korea to know, unfortunately. It literally means "as soon as you enter [into] affection [with someone], it's separation." In other words, the moment we consider someone a friend, we are separated from them -- they move or otherwise disappear from our lives.

7. 돌다리도 두들겨 보고 건너라 : Knock on a stone bridge, then cross it. You have to be careful about everything, even if it looks secure.

8. 바늘 도둑이 소 도둑 된다 : The needle thief becomes a cow thief. To put this saying in the words of Weird Al: "cause you start out stealing songs [MP3s], then you're robbing liquor stores, and selling crack, and running over children with your car!" According to our teacher, stealing a cow used to be punishable by death in Korea, because the cow was considered so important to an individual's/family's livelihood. Therefore, in this age, this phrase is equivalent to saying "the needle thief becomes a brutal murderer."

9. 남의 떡이 커 보인다 : Others' ddeok (rice cake) looks big. The grass is greener on the other side of the fence.

10. 소 잃고 외양간 고치기 : This means "losing a cow, then fixing the stable." In other words, AFTER a crisis, you prepare against the crisis. It would've been more helpful if you'd prepared beforehand!

11. 개똥(쇠똥)도 약에 쓰려면 없다 : This is my favorite Korean saying in the entire language. It literally means "When you are trying to use dog shit (horse shit) as medicine, there isn't any." The meaning of this phrase is this: things that are all over the place and that you take for granted suddenly disappear when you need them most. If you have a gazillion pens strewn all over your desk, and one day, you need to write down a phone number in a hurry, you'll be unable to find a pen!

12. 개구리 올챙이 적 생각도 못 한다 : The frog cannot think [of] the tadpole [as] an enemy. You can't hate people who aren't as old or experienced as you, because you were once just like them. I may find Level 1 people to be naive and kind of annoying, but I was one of them just over a year ago.

13. 엎드려 절 받기 : This literally means "putting your head down and receiving [someone else's] bow." In other words, someone goes out of their way to do something courteous like bowing to you, and you just ignore them.

14. 쥐구멍에도 볕들 날 있다 : Even into the mouse hole, there are days when the light shines. No matter how dark and horrible your world may be, don't worry, something good is ahead for you.

15. 열길 물 속은 알아도 한 길 사람 속은 모른다 : Even though you know [what's] in 10 gil (Korean measurement) of water, you do not know [what's] in 1 gil of a person. People are unpredictable?

16. 웃는 낯에 침 뱉으랴 : Spit on the face of a smiling person. This should be perfectly obvious. Basically, someone treats you well, and you, well, spit on them.

17. 매도 먼저 맞는 게 낫다 : It is superior to receive even the whip first. Basically, if there's something really crappy that you're going to have to endure anyway, you might as well get it over with. For example, we had speaking exams today. Originally, I was slated to be #5, but I decided to trade with #1 so I could go first -- that way I could just get it over with, in the spirit of this saying.

18. 어물전 망신은 꼴뚜기가 시킨다 : This one is REALLY difficult to translate literally, and I had a load of trouble with it. After a LONG discussion with my language partner, I finally came up with the following: "As for the shame of the fish store, the small kind of octopus makes it have it." Basically, a huge organization can be made to look bad by one young individual.

19. 제 눈에 안경 : Glasses on my eyes. Such-and-such may not look so great to you, but through my glasses, such-and-such looks great.

20. 과부 사정 홀아비가 안다 : The widower knows the widow's circumstances.

21. 똥 묻은 개가 겨 묻은 개 나무란다 : The dog that buried the shit rebukes the dog that buried the chaff. A hypocrite tells another person not to do something that's less serious than what they've been doing.

22. 우물을 파도 한 우물을 파라 : Dig one well even though you dug a well. In other words, you keep on doing something over again, and it impedes your progress. For example, you work your way up to store manager at McDonald's, then decide to quit and start from the bottom at Burger King, making $6.25 an hour. That's an example of this saying.

23. 말 한마디로 천냥 빚을 갚는다 : You repay a 1,000 nyang debt with one word. Note: nyang is an old word for "Korean won." Nowadays, 1,000 won is almost nothing, but once upon a time, I'm sure it was worth a lot more.

24. 친구 따라 강남 간다 : Follow your friend and go to Gangnam. You do something because your friend does it, not because it's logical. Kind of the same way all those idiots moved into super-expensive Gangnam!

25. 십 년이면 강산도 변한다 : When it's ten years, even the rivers and mountains change. This references a place becoming unrecognizable over the course of years -- this is especially true of Seoul.

Copyright (C) 2008 Charles Wetzel. All rights reserved.