Koreans have a long tradition of living by the wisdom passed down by their ancestors. This wisdom generally comes in the form of proverbs, or sokdam (속담). With the Korean language being full of these proverbs, it’s often helpful to learn the meaning of these sayings to better understand the nuances of communication. With that in mind, we’ve compiled a list of fifteen commonly-used Korean proverbs for you to take into the new year.
1. 티끌 모아 태산
Literal Translation: One can build a mountain by collecting specks of dust.
Meaning: A penny saved is a penny earned.
This proverb states that you can build a mountain by collecting dust, even if it might take a long time. Similarly, hard work can add up, leading you to obtain your goal.
2. 보기 좋은 떡이 먹기도 좋다
bogi joeun tteogi meokgido jota
Literal Translation: Good looking tteok (rice cake) tastes good.
Meaning: If it looks good, it’ll likely taste good.
This saying implies that when you see something that looks good, it will probably be of good quality because someone put effort into the appearance as well.
3. 백지장도 맞들면 낫다
baekjijangdo matdeulmyeon natda
Literal Translation: If you lift together, it’s better – even if it’s a sheet of paper.
Meaning: Two heads are better than one.
4. 궁하면 통한다
Literal Translation: If you are hard up for something, it will open up.
Meaning: There is always a way out.
5. 엎질러진 물이다
Literal Translation: The water is already spilt.
Meaning: There is no use crying over spilt milk.
6. 웃음은 최고의 명약이다
useumeun choegoui myeongyagida
Literal Translation: Laughter is the best medicine.
7. 병 주고 약 준다
byeong jugo yak junda
Literal Translation: Give a disease, then give medicine.
Meaning: To make trouble and then give help.
This Korean proverb is used when somebody helps another person after causing them trouble. This could be used when someone insults you, then compliments you immediately afterwards.
8. 누워서 떡 먹기
nuwoseo tteok meokgi
Literal Translation: Eat tteok while lying down.
Meaning: It's a piece of cake.
9. 원숭이도 나무에서 떨어질 때가 있다
wonsungido namueseo tteoreojil ttaega itda
Literal Translation: There is a time when even a monkey falls from the tree.
Meaning: Even a monkey sometimes falls from the tree.
This proverb is a reminder that even experts sometimes make mistakes - i.e. even though monkeys may be great climbers, they still fall.
10. 굴러온 돌이 박힌 돌 빼낸다
gulleoon dori bakin dol ppaenaenda
Literal Translation: A rolling stone extracts a stone that is embedded.
Meaning: The new replaces the old.
11. 시작이 반이다
Literal Translation: The start is the half (the work).
Meaning: Well begun is half done.
This saying implies that getting started is half the battle; so, even just beginning a difficult task is commendable.
12. 호랑이에게 물려가도 정신만 차리면 산다
horangiege mullyeogado jeongsinman charimyeon sanda
Literal Translation: Even though a tiger is biting you, if you gain consciousness, (you can) live
Meaning: Keep your cool even in the face of despair, and you'll make it through the challenge.
13. 고양이에게 생선을 맡기다
goyangiege saengseoneul matgida
Literal Translation: Entrust the fish to the cat.
Meaning: Let the fox guard the sheep.
This expression is used to share your doubts about trusting someone that might have dubious intentions.
14. 장구를 쳐야 춤을 추지
janggureul chyeoya chumeul chuji
Literal Translation: You can only dance when the jangu (drum) is played.
Meaning: Help is needed at times.
This proverb states that you can't dance without music; and so, some tasks can't be completed without help.
15. 말 한마디에 천냥 빚을 갚는다
mal hanmadie cheonnyang bijeul gamneunda
Literal Translation: One word pays back a debt of a thousand nyang.
Meaning: A soft answer turns away wrath.
Even if you are in trouble, you can avoid it if you are if you were sincere and apologetic.
What was your favorite Korean proverb? Do you have similar sayings in your language? Let us know in the comments below!