Koreans have long been taught to live by the wisdom passed down from their ancestors. These traditional Korean sayings (along with a number of idiomatic expressions inspired by English adages) are still commonly used today in the land of the morning calm. The following 12 proverbs are particularly wise, no matter your native language. Did you know you can now travel with Culture Trip? Book now and join one of our premium small-group tours to discover the world like never before.
고생 끝에 낙이 온다 – Go-saeng kkeut-e nag-i on-da
Literal translation: At the end of hardship comes happiness.
Meaning: This proverb is used during difficult times to encourage someone to keep working hard and not give up.
Literal translation: A dragon rises up from a small stream.
Meaning: Ancient myths relay stories about dragons rising up from the depths of the sea; therefore, it would be both unexpected and astonishing if one were to rise from a shallow stream. As such, this term is used to describe a great man or woman arising from humble beginnings.
개똥도 약에 쓰려면 없다 – Gae-ttong-do yag-e sseu-lyeo-myeon eobs-da
Literal translation: When you want to find even dog poop to use as medicine, there isn’t any.
Meaning: Put simply, things are never where you want them. For example, your desk is always covered in pens but the second you need one to scribble down a phone number in a hurry, you can’t seem to find one.
공자 앞에서 문자 쓴다 – Gong-ja ap-es-eo mun-ja sseun-da
Literal translation: Write hanja in front of Confucius.
Meaning: This proverb describes someone who is so arrogant that they are attempting to instruct an expert how to do something. You wouldn’t try to teach a fish how to swim, nor would you tell Confucius how to write Chinese characters.
누워서 떡 먹기 – Nu-wo-seo tteog meo-ggi
Literal translation: Eating rice cakes while lying down.
Meaning: Similar to the English expression ‘a piece of cake’, this term is used to convey that something is very easy.
등잔 밑이 어둡다 – Deung-jan mit-i eo-dub-da
Literal translation: It’s dark under the lamp.
Meaning: This oxymoron infers that sometimes the answer is right under our noses. We may often disregard something that seems obvious because it’s ‘in the light’, even when the answer in plain sight.
김치국부터 마시지 말라 – Kim-chi-gug-bu-teo ma-si-ji mal-la
Literal translation: Don’t drink the kimchi soup first.
Meaning: Kimchi soup is usually consumed after the main course to aid digestion, therefore you should wait until the end of the meal before eating it. This proverb outlines the fact that you should wait until what you expect to happen actually happens, before taking any action. In other words, don’t count your chickens before they hatch!
가재는 게 편이라 – Ga-jae-neun ge pyeon-i-la
Literal translation: The crayfish sides with the crab.
Meaning: Since a crayfish and a crab have many similar traits, this saying implies that they would side with each other. In other words, people with similar traits or backgrounds usually stick together.
과부 설움은 홀아비가 안다 – Gwa-bu seol-um-eun hol-a-bi-ga an-da
Literal translation: A widower knows a widow’s sorrow.
Meaning: This proverb is used to express the idea that people who are unhappy like to express their emotions to others, or are comforted by the unhappiness of others. In other words, misery loves company.
옷이 날개다 – Os-i nal-gae-da
Literal translation: Clothes are wings.
Meaning: In appearance-conscious Korea, this saying is used to emphasize the importance of dressing well, or the idea that clothes make the man.
원숭이도 나무에서 떨어진다 – Won-sung-i-do na-mu-es-eo tteol-eo-jin-da
Literal translation: Even monkeys fall from trees.
Meaning: This expression suggests that even someone who is an expert at something sometimes makes mistakes – monkeys are great climbers, but even they sometimes fall. If a friend is really beating themselves up over a mistake, this proverb can be used to reassure them that sometimes these things just happen.
매도 먼저 맞는 게 낫다 – Mae-do meon-jeo maj-neun ge nas-da
Literal translation: It’s better to get beaten by the whip first.
Meaning: Basically, this expression means that if there’s something unpleasant you’re ultimately going to have to endure, it’s better to get it over and done with.
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