Oh K-Drama: K-Drama 101 – Terminology


Before we dive in, let’s begin with a formal introduction. Your avid K-drama watcher is here at last—me, Amber Ly! Over the next few weeks, I will be introducing you to the wonderful world of Korean dramas (a.k.a. K-drama)! I will provide commentary on one of the most anticipated dramas of this year (Heirs), instruct first-time watchers on basic K-drama knowledge, review old shows, and more!

Now back to where we began. Let’s just assume that the only insight you have into Korean culture is the viral music video, “Gangnam Style” by Psy. This would make Heirs your first Korean drama. If so, you probably have no clue what you’re getting into. So, we’re going to take a step back before we completely drown ourselves in the show, and go over the essential terminology needed to understand all that will be going on while introducing some characters in Heirs, a drama I will be reviewing. Let K-drama 101 officially commence!

For this first session, I will be introducing the Korean terminology that will come up over and over again throughout the show and my posts.

Relationships between people

Hyung/Oppa/Unni/Noona/Dongsaeng: Age is significant for Koreans. When referring to those older than you, you do not call them by their first name. If you do, it’s considered rude and disrespectful if you aren’t really close to them. How do you refer to them then? If you’re a male, you’d call your older male friend/brother “hyung.” In terms of talking to an older friend/sister, it’d be “noona.” If you’re a girl, your older sister/friend is “unni” and your older brother/older boyfriend/older guy friend is “oppa.” So what does “dongsaeng” mean? Dongsaeng is a term used for those who are younger than you regardless of gender.

Chingoo: “Chingoo” is a friend or someone who is the same age as you.
KDRAMA101_Krystal_11-05 Jung Krystal [left] plays Lee Bona in Heirs and is hoobae to Kang Haneul’s [right] character, Lee Hyoshin.

Sunbae/Hoobae: Seniority is also really important to Koreans. A “sunbae” essentially means senior. People also add “nim” to it, (sunbae-nim) and the suffix makes it more polite. You’d call someone sunbae, if you go/went to the same school and they were in the same grade or above you. In the workplace, calling someone sunbae in which they’ve worked there longer than you have. “Hoobae” is the latter person in the relationship. A hoobae is the junior.

Other commonly used words
KDRAMA101_KimJiwon_11-05Kim Jiwon plays chaebol heiress, Yoo Rachel, in ‘Heirs.’

Chaebol: A really wealthy person. All the characters in Heirs, except for Cha Eunsang and Yoon Chanyoung, are essentially “chaebols.” They’re all preparing to take over companies, political positions, or stocks from their parents.

Choi Wonyoung plays Yoon Chanyoung’s dad, Yoon Jaeho in “Heirs.” Here is an example of an ahjusshi.

Ahjusshi/Ahjumma: “Ahjussi” is a term used for middle-aged men and “ahjumma” is a term for a middle-aged women.
Yeobo: This term is only used between people who are married. It’s meaning is similar to calling your husband or wife “honey.”
Joen daemal/banmal: Using polite language is additionally important in Korean culture. When you first meet someone, you’ll normally talk to each other using more polite words called, joen daemal. Since joen daemal uses a lot more words, it’s often thought to be burdensome to speak. When people become close, it’s common that they’ll drop the formal language and switch to banmal. Banmal is simply informal speech that is commonly used between friends. However, in a older-younger person relationship, often times the older person will speak in banmal while the younger one sticks to joen daemal. Again, age is very important to Koreans.

This list may continue to grow if or when I gather more words that frequently confuse people. The next class for K-drama 101 is set for next week and Heirs episodes 1 and 2 are coming your way!

Words by Amber Ly
Screenshots courtesy of Drama Fever

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