Green frog sitting on a tree branch

15 Inspiring Korean Proverbs to Make You Think (With Translations and Audio)

Need some artful advice and wise words to get you through a few bumps in your life?

Well, if you’re studying the Korean language, you’re in luck.

Korean culture is full of fantastic proverbs (known as 속담 ) that native speakers love to use daily. Chances are, if you’ve watched any form of Korean media like K-dramas or K-movies, you’ve heard one or two proverbs being thrown about.

Here are 15 of my personal favorite Korean proverbs. Let these adages wash over you and shower in their sapience (and practice some Korean on the way).

Contents

1. 닭의 목을 비틀어도 새벽은 온다

English translation: Even if you break the neck of a rooster, dawn will still come

Forgive the gruesome picture–to be more modern, you can swap out the “neck of a rooster” with “morning alarm clock.”

All this proverb is saying is that no matter what you do, some things are just inevitable. Perhaps this isn’t the best thing you’d like to hear at the start of a Monday.

2. 다 된 밥에 재 뿌리지 말라

English translation: Don’t spread ashes on cooked rice

There are few worse ways to ruin a delicious bowl of fresh rice. This proverb is a stern warning to not ruin something that’s been done successfully.

In other words, don’t rain on your or anyone else’s parade. No one appreciates the stunts of a prolific party-pooper. Just eat your rice and enjoy it, yeah?

3. 원숭이도 나무에서 떨어질 때가 있다

English translation: Even monkeys fall from trees sometimes

They really do–there are videos of it happening! This encouraging proverb tells a simple fact of life: even experts make mistakes. Don’t think that even professionals and role models are free from flaws.

No one’s perfect, and sometimes the best of us can make some spectacular stumbles.

4. 김국부터 마시지 말라

English translation: Don’t drink kimchi soup first

Have you ever partaken in Korean cuisine before? Kimchi soup is a lovely and nutritious dish that commonly accompanies a bowl of rice.

However, one wouldn’t typically jump right into slurping down the soup immediately, especially when there are other side dishes present.

This proverb is a warning to not get ahead of yourself in expecting great results, or put in the words of another proverb: don’t count your chickens before they hatch.

5. 윗물이 맑아야, 아랫물도 맑다

English translation: The upstream water must be clean so that the downstream water can be clean

Here’s one for the work-weary. For a workplace to be organized and stable, upper management needs to be steady. Leadership must be good in order for lower-level employees to do well.

Poor leadership will make the castle crumble–or in this case, muddy up the water of a stream. Tell that to your boss the next time they want to shove some more projects your way.

6. 개구리 올챙이 적 생각 못 한다

English translation: The frog forgets its days when it was a tadpole

Because of its incredible stages of growth, and probably the fact it looks so darn cute, the humble frog is often a topic of wise tidbits and moral lessons.

This proverb suggests that at the height of his or her success, one can forget their more humble roots. It’s a good word of caution to not forget your origins and where you came from, even if you reach a place far from where you started.

7. 달도 차면 기운다

English translation: Even the full moon wanes

A sobering proverb, this is a careful reminder that good luck and happiness aren’t meant for forever, and that our fortune can wax and wane beyond our control.

That’s why it’s important to fully appreciate the beauty of a joyful moment as it happens. Be as absorbed in it as you would be completely awestruck by the night of a glorious full moon shining bright amidst a black sky.

8. 꿀도 약이라면 쓰다

English translation: Even honey tastes bitter when it’s medicine

Classify any consumable as “medicinal” and suddenly it loses quite a bit of its gustatory appeal. Similarly, even helpful things like someone else’s advice or feedback can be a bitter thing to swallow, especially when you’re eager to do everything right all at once.

Just remember that good critique and commentary are meant to foster your improvement, not wound your feelings.

9. 백지장도 맞들면 낫다

English translation: It’s easier to lift a piece of paper together

Yes, lifting a piece of paper can very much be a solo activity. It doesn’t take much muscle to do. But even something as simple as that can be done more easily with a helping hand.

Two hands, and heads, are much better than one. If you can get the willing assistance, then take it, ego be darned.

10. 김 안 나는 숭늉이 더 뜨겁다

English translation: Scorched rice tea without steam is hotter

숭늉 is scorched rice tea, made by boiling water in a rice pot containing the sticky remnants of cooked rice.

It’s a soothing drink, but one you should constantly sip, not slurp, because it can stay hot for a long while. This proverb is describing how the tea, even without any visible signs of its heat, can still effortlessly burn your tongue.

To relate this to humans–looks can be deceiving, and those that express little are often the ones to watch out for.

11. 병 주고 약 준다

English translation: Give a disease, then give medicine

A saying that aptly describes an experience we’ve all had with another person. Someone hurts your feelings or causes you some level of grief, but soon after, they are quick to offer you help or douse you in compliments.

Either they’re blissfully ignorant, or they’re vigorously attempting to soothe the blow while praying you don’t hold grudges. Use this proverb against the perpetrator to show that you’re no one’s fool and to let them know that you’re onto them.

12. 세 살 버릇 여든까지 간다

English translation: Habits of a three-year-old last until the age of 80

It’s not necessarily accusing someone of being an adult child. I interpret this as a less snarky way of saying “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” It’s true though–old habits die hard.

What you learn as an impressionable child, whether good or bad, will stick around for a long time. It explains why some grown folks just don’t seem to change even as the years go by.

13. 이가 없으면 잇몸으로 살지

English translation: If you don’t have teeth, then subsist with your gums

We’re not talking about the woes of the geriatric. This proverb states that you should make do with what you have, even if it’s not much. Rather than yearn for what’s gone or absent, it’s far more productive to take advantage of the available resources around you.

I advise you not to spout this proverb to your own denture-wearing grandma or grandpa–I’m not sure if they’ll appreciate it as much as you do.

14. 구르는 돌에는 이끼가 끼지 않는다

English translation: A rolling stone bears no moss

Feel like a rock stuck in the mud? Are you sure it’s not actually moss that’s holding you back? Progress is a never-ending journey. So long as you keep moving forward and remain enthusiastic, your skills won’t get rusty.

This proverb is a good one for creatives to remember, especially for those who are prone to procrastination or are more self-critical than they need to be.

15. 개구리도 움츠려야 뛴다

English translation: A frog must tense-up/shrink to jump

Another frog proverb! This sage piece of advice is a reminder that good performance isn’t done on the fly. Preparation and training is key to the success of an impressive feat–any person, especially an athlete, can tell you that.

Also, if you’re curious about what a failed frog jump looks like, here’s a video that shows just that.

 

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Short, witty but undeniably profound, proverbs have a way of capturing human truths that would otherwise be hard to explain in plain prose.

Hopefully, these words of guidance will be of help to you today or some other day.

I suggest reading through these proverbs every morning. It’s a motivational way to start the day, and it also fits in some quick Korean language practice at the same time!

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