Those words do not mean what you think they mean

As a result of Korea’s obsession with English fluency, a lot of Koreans speak English that sounds almost like that of native speakers. However, you will find that in conversations with these Koreans, there are some words that can’t be Korean but you cannot fully comprehend. Because they can’t possibly mean what you think they mean. And you would be right. These words are loanwords from other languages, usually English, whose meanings have been transformed due to years of usage in a different cultural context. But since Koreans, like most users of loanwords, are unaware of the discrepancies in the meanings of the same word, the usage of these words often leads to misunderstandings. Usually hilarious, but still, wouldn’t it be better if you understood what they were talking about? So here are five commonly used Korean loanwords and what they mean in Korean.

Arbeit or alba: German-speakers and visitors of Holocaust museums will know that ‘arbeit’ is German for work. Although in German, arbeit is used to describe full-time work, in Korea it is used to describe a part-time job, usually performed by students. How did a German word make its way into the Korean vernacular? I have no idea, but it probably came via Japan as the Japanese also use arbeit or arubaito as a term to describe a part-time job. Some say that this came from the state-run student employment programs that emerged following World War II in many countries. Since the economic devastation made it difficult for students to pay tuition and attend school, governments created job opportunities for these students (since young people without jobs tend to riot and whatnot), and since Germany was probably one of these countries, the concept of work for students, or Arbeiten für Studenten according to Google Translate, probably made its way to similarly war-devastated former German ally Japan, and from there hopped the East Sea over to the Korean peninsula. Although it might have started out as a term to describe full-time work that students did to pay for tuition, now it simply means a part-time job. Often you will see it contracted to alba, so just keep in mind that as long as there isn’t a Jessica in front of it, they’re talking about a part-time job.

Gag: You will hear the words gag and gagman or gagwoman tossed around a lot, and no, it’s not an indicator of Korea’s national obsession with BDSM (unless I’ve been left out of a national inside joke). Although gag is now usually associated with the gag reflex, gagging (as in silencing), and other negative, vaguely sexual connotations in the English language, in Korea, gag simply means a comedic bit. Like a visual gag or something like that. Someone who performs such comedic bits is known as a gagman or a gagwoman, which as far as I know are Korean inventions. One of Korea’s most popular comedy shows is called Gag Concert. So if you meet anyone who says they’re a gagman or gagwoman, chances are their line of work doesn’t involve leather suits and whips. They’re just comedians, not dominatrices. Or who knows? Their arbeit might involve BDSM. A gagman’s salary probably isn’t that great unless you make it big.

Drip: This is a word, if you can really call it that (probably more like slang), that emerged fairly recently, probably only in the last three or four years. It’s an abbreviation of ad lib, which as you may well know means an impromptu remark. Koreans play fast and loose with the pronunciations of their ‘r’s and ‘l’s so ad lib is usually pronounced adrib or adrip. For some reason they decided to drop the first syllable (because ad lib is too long?) and create the new word ‘drib’ or ‘drip.’ It usually refers to spur of the moment remarks in conversations, usually not in a particularly positive light, so a witty quip wouldn’t necessarily be considered as drip, but some politician’s inappropriate talk about “legitimate rape” or whatever would definitely be considered drip. Lots of gagpeople are known for their drip, which is a sentence that wouldn’t make sense anywhere but in Korea.

Fighting: An often used cheer, fighting is usually pronounced paiting (because there is no ‘f’ sound in Korean) or hwaiting, which comes from the Japanese transliteration of the English ‘f’ to ‘h.’ I’m pretty sure this also comes from Japanese, both because of the aforementioned pronunciation and since they also use a similar fight or hwaito cheer. Why the -ing form was used in Korea, I have no idea. Anyway, you usually use the word as encouragement, as a means of wishing good luck. That’s why so many celebrities seem to use it on Korean TV before sports events and any sort of competition. And if you use it inappropriately, say right before someone is going to get fired and everyone knows, that’s drip.

Pream: Pream is a term often used by older generations instead of coffee creamer. Although Koreans now usually drink hand drip specialty coffees or caramel macchiatos or packets of instant coffee (complete with sugar and coffee creamer), there must have been a time before Starbucks when people drank coffee poured from a pot and flavored with sugar cubes and creamer. Like Xerox or Google, a certain brand of creamer became synonymous with the product. In this case it was the now-defunct Pream Coffee Creamer, which reigned supreme from 1952 until 1958 when it was violently deposed by the Usurper Coffee-Mate of the House Carnation. I’m guessing coffee creamer was introduced to Korea during the 1950s, which is why Pream became the go-to term for coffee creamer or just milk-stuff used in coffee. So if someone offers you coffee at their home and asks if you want sugar or Pream, just know that they’re not mispronouncing cream. And please don’t look up Pream on Urban Dictionary. They are definitely not offering that.

There are many other loanwords in the Korean vocabulary that you might encounter in your day-to-day interactions with Koreans. Some you will understand immediately, and others you won’t, no matter how much context there is. When faced with these words, you can smile and nod and wonder privately, later going home and trying to figure out what they were talking about. Or you can ask. This will undoubtedly lead to a conversation with some permutation of the question “Oh, you don’t use that word?” and your Korean friends will learn that the words they are using might not be understood by other English speakers and you will learn that there are certain words that in a different culture do not mean what you think they mean. Not misused, but used differently. And isn’t that a better alternative?


2 thoughts on “Those words do not mean what you think they mean

  1. Hello~

    I’ve never heard ‘drip’ or ‘pream’ before when I was living in Korea, did you hear them often ? I’ve heard of fighting and arbeit a lot.

    I’ve also heard people use ‘sense’ to compliment people who are considerate of others in a ‘cool’ and ‘thoughtful’ way 🙂

    My Korean cousins always use the word ‘gradation’ when they talk about doing their nails which I thought was a bit weird but made sense.


    • Hi! Drip is a fairly recent term, which might explain why you haven’t heard it before. And Pream is a word that only appears in the vicinity of coffee and instant coffee in particular among middle aged or older people, so it tends to come and go. Sense tends to be a variation of the Korean noonchi, but I haven’t heard gradation before. I’ll be sure to look it up!

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