You might be watching Korean dramas, listening to K-Pop or actually traveling in Korea.
And you might have noticed that one or two phrases you hear sound… odd.
Chances are you’ve stumbled upon a Korean idiom.
Idioms are strange and fun expressions that are in every language, but your textbooks and translator apps might not cover them.
That being said, here’s a list of ten common Korean idioms that you’d want to know to upgrade your knowledge of the language.
- 1. 그림의 떡 (geu-reem-eui dduk) — “Rice cake in a picture”
- 2. 눈코 뜰 새 없다 (nun-ko tteul seh eupt-da) — “I don’t have time to open my eyes and nose”
- 3. 가재는 게 편이라 (ga-jeh-neun geh pyun-ee-ra) — “The crayfish sides with the crab”
- 4. 식은 죽 먹기 (shik-eun jook muk-gi) — “like eating cold porridge”
- 5. 꼬리를 치다/흔들다 (kko-ri-reul chi-da / heun-deul-da) — “wagging / shaking tail”
- 6. 눈이 높다 (nun-ee nop-da) — “eyes are high”
- 7. 눈이 뒤집히다 (nun-ee dwi-jip-hee-da) — “eyes are turned upside down”
- 8. 바람을 넣다 (ba-rahm-eul nuh-da) — “to put in wind / inflate”
- 9. 배가 아프다 (beh-ga ah-peu-da) — “stomach hurts”
- 10. 파리를 날리다 (pah-ree-reul nal-ree-da) — “have flies flying around”
1. 그림의 떡 (geu-reem-eui dduk) — “Rice cake in a picture”
Meaning: Something you desire, but can’t have or afford
Rice cakes, 떡 (dduk), are staples of Korean cuisine. They can be eaten as a snack but often make their most notable appearance in more formal or celebratory affairs. Culturally, they’re associated with fortune and giving. Just like a rice cake in a picture, this idiom illustrates the inability to snatch up and consume a similarly delectable item, whether it’s a new computer or a job promotion.
세계 여행을 가고 싶지만 그림의 떡이다 (seh-geh-yuh-heng-eul ga-go shiep-ji-man geu-reem-eui dduk-ee-da)
I want to travel the world, but it’s a rice cake in a picture.
2. 눈코 뜰 새 없다 (nun-ko tteul seh eupt-da) — “I don’t have time to open my eyes and nose”
Meaning: You’re too busy and have no time to lose
There are plenty of Korean idioms involving body parts, many of them dealing with one’s physical wellness (or illness). This idiom suggests that the speaker is so occupied that they don’t even have time to move their eyes or nose, an exaggeration that any overwhelmed employee or student can understand!
The expression is very relevant in a time where balancing work-life can be a common issue today for Korean natives.
숙제가 너무 많아 눈코 뜰 새가 없다 (sook-jeh-ga nuh-mu mahn-ah nun-ko-tteul-seh-ga eupt-da)
I have so much homework that I can’t open my eyes and nose.
3. 가재는 게 편이라 (ga-jeh-neun geh pyun-ee-ra) — “The crayfish sides with the crab”
Meaning: Those that are similar, stay together
This idiom, which is also a proverb, states that a crayfish would instinctively side with a crab because they look similar. The expression suggests that those of similar backgrounds or characteristics tend to agree with each other.
They may share a common profession, familial bond, personality, etc. You can use this idiom in much the same way as its English equivalent, “birds of a feather flock together.”
남편과 아내가 싸웠다. 그러나 장모님은 언제나 아내 편이다. 가재는 게 편이다 (nahm-pyun-gwa ah-ne-ka ssa-wut-da, geu-ruh-na jang-mo-neem-eun uhn-jeh-na ah-ne-pyun-ee-da ga-jeh-neun geh pyun-ee-da)
The husband fought with the wife, but the (husband’s) mother-in-law always sides with the wife—the crayfish sides with the crab.
4. 식은 죽 먹기 (shik-eun jook muk-gi) — “like eating cold porridge”
Meaning: It’s a piece of cake
죽 (jook) is Korean rice porridge made of slow-boiled rice and derives much of its flavor from added salt or ingredients. The bland, watery nature of this dish makes it a popular food to eat when someone is ill, unable to chew well or prefers something easy to digest. That being said, equating something to eating rice porridge suggests it’s a very simple task.
시험이 쉬워서 식은 죽 먹기였다 (shi-hum-ee swi-wo-suh shik-eun-jook muk-gi-yut-da)
The test was so easy that it was like eating cold porridge.
5. 꼬리를 치다/흔들다 (kko-ri-reul chi-da / heun-deul-da) — “wagging / shaking tail”
Meaning: flattering or enticing another
You’ve probably seen it before—someone doing their very best to get in another person’s good graces, usually in flirtatious situations. (The resulting display can be quite amusing!) In Korean lingo, this kind of performance is equated to that of an animal eagerly wagging its tail.
여자가 남자에게 꼬리를 치다 (yuh-ja-ga nahm-ja-eh-geh kko-ri-reul chi-da)
The woman is wagging her tail at the man.
6. 눈이 높다 (nun-ee nop-da) — “eyes are high”
Meaning: having high standards or unrealistic expectations
This idiom is used to refer to someone who possesses standards that border on unreasonable. The person who fits this description is someone whose perception rests on a much higher plane (thus, their “eyes are high”). You’ll often find this used in the context of relationships when a person expects far too much from their potential suitor.
친구가 결혼을 안 하고 있다. 그 친구는 눈이 높다 (chin-gu-ga gyul-hohn-eul ahn-ha-go eet-da, geu-chin-gu-neun nun-ee nop-da)
My friend won’t marry anytime soon, his/her eyes are high.
7. 눈이 뒤집히다 (nun-ee dwi-jip-hee-da) — “eyes are turned upside down”
Meaning: to be mad, insane
Here’s another idiom involving the eyes that paints quite a picture! You can probably think of a time when someone (or you) reached their breaking point and snapped. Of course, people’s eyes don’t literally turn upside down when this happens, but the expression does reflect a loss of normality.
너무 화가 나서 눈이 뒤집히다 (nuh-mu hwa-ga na-suh nun-ee dwi-jip-hee-da)
I was so mad my eyes turned upside down!
8. 바람을 넣다 (ba-rahm-eul nuh-da) — “to put in wind / inflate”
Meaning: to pump up, motivate, coax
This idiom is similar in phrasing and meaning to the English idiom “to put wind in one’s sails.” It’s a common expression meant to express the moment when one is enticed into action, whether it’s because of a stroke of fortune, inspiration or encouragement from another individual.
However, it doesn’t always have a positive connotation. For example, one can also “put wind” to a ridiculous request in order to increase the chances of someone doing something they wouldn’t typically do.
내 친구가 영화관에 가자고 바람을 넣는다 (ne-chin-gu-ga yung-hwa-gwan-eh ga-ja-go ba-rahm-eul nuh-neun-da)
Literally, “My friend is inflating going to the movie theater.” In other words, “My friend is making a big deal about going to the movies.”
9. 배가 아프다 (beh-ga ah-peu-da) — “stomach hurts”
Meaning: to be extremely jealous
While you can say this phrase to say you have a stomachache, the idiom suggests that you’re envious of another, usually because they lucked into riches or happiness and you haven’t.
The feeling can be a bit more than just jealousy and often includes a sense of disappointment. The idiom is used when the envied person in particular is someone you know and is close enough to you that seeing their moment of success feels like a punch in the gut.
사촌이 큰 집을 사서 배가 아프다 (sa-chon-ee keun-jip-eul sa-suh beh-ga ap-peu-da)
My cousin bought a big house, so my stomach hurts.
10. 파리를 날리다 (pah-ree-reul nal-ree-da) — “have flies flying around”
Meaning: to be in a slump, have no customers
Flies are commonly known as a blight to any environment, and in the case of this idiom, they’re a sign of misfortune. The phrase is used quite specifically for businesses that are suffering from a scarcity of clients.
It’s easy to visualize what this expression is meant to illustrate—an establishment that’s so empty that the bulk of the employee’s work for the day is shooing away flies.
너무 한가해서 파리를 날리고 있다 (nuh-mu hahn-ga-heh-suh pah-ree-reul nal-ree-go eet-da)
It’s so idle that there are flies flying around.
So that’s our list of just a few common Korean idioms!
Keep an ear out for them in TV shows and movies, or just do a search on YouTube or the language learning program FluentU to hear them in context—on FluentU, you can also add individual words from the phrases into a flashcard deck and hear them in context through authentic videos.
See if you can find instances where you can put these expressions to use. Maybe you’ll get the chance to impress actual native speakers!