Do you use idioms in your everyday conversations? Idioms are expressions that have a different meaning than their literal translations. An example of an English idiom is the saying, “break a leg!” When you say this to your friend before they give a speech or a performance, do you want them to actually break their leg? Of course not! “Break a leg,” as an idiom, takes on a new meaning of “good luck!”
Korean speakers also use idioms in their conversations. Idioms can make your language sound more interesting, creative, and natural. Idioms are also a great way to add humor to your conversations. Let’s look at some idioms we can use to talk about school or work, relationships and social interactions, and making mistakes. There are numerous Korean idioms that use words related to body parts so, as a bonus, we will look at a few of those as well. 시작해요!
Many of our everyday conversations revolve around school or work, as these are usually very big parts of our lives. So let’s first take a look at some idiomatic expressions you can use when discussing your job or school work.
Korean idioms about school and work
갈 길이 멀다 (gal giri meolda)
Literally: “to go on a long road”
Usage: If you have a ton of work to do and there is no end in sight, you can use this expression which means you have a long road ahead of you. You can also use this when something will not be finished or completed for a long time. For example, someone who just graduated from school and joined the work-force has a long road ahead of them before retirement.
A: 요즘 매일 운동하고 있죠? (yojeum maeil undonghago issjyo?)
B: 네, 하지만 아직도 갈 길이 멀어요. (ne, geureohgineun hajiman ajikdo gal giri meoreoyo.)
A: These days you exercise everyday, right?
B: Yeah, but I still have a long way to go.
어깨가 무겁다 (eokkaega mugeopda)
Literally: “one’s shoulders feel heavy”
Usage: You can use this idiom when you feel like you have too many responsibilities or a heavy burden.
A: 무슨 일 있어요? 스트레스 받아보여요. (museun il isseoyo? seuteureseu badaboyeoyo.)
B: 큰 시험을 위해 공부하는 것 때문에 어깨가 무거워요. (keun siheomeul wihae gongbuhaneun geosttaemune eokkaega mugeowoyo.)
A: What’s wrong? You look stressed.
B: I feel burdened because I am studying for a big test.
시작이 반이다 (sijagi banida)
Literally: “a start is half”
Usage: This means “a good start is half the battle” in English. Do you have a big final paper to write for class or a report to make for your boss? Just getting started is half the battle! You can use this expression to give someone encouragement when they have a big project to do.
A: 저는 공부해야 하지만 공부는 너무 지루해요. (jeoneun gongbuhaeya hajiman gongbuneun neomu jiruhaeyo.)
B: 힘내세요. 시작이 반이잖아요. (himnaeseyo. sijagi banijanhayo.)
A: I need to study but it is too boring.
B: Cheer up. You know starting is half the battle.
식은 죽 먹기 (sigeun juk meokgi)
Literally: “eating cool rice porridge”
Usage: When something is really easy, just like eating rice porridge after it has cooled down, you can say “식은 죽 먹기예요.” This is similar to saying “it was a breeze” or “it was a snap” in English.
A: 그 시험은 식은 죽 먹기예요. (geu siheomeun sigeun juk meokgiyeyo.)
A: That exam was a breeze.
손 놓고 있다 (son nohgo issda)
Literally: “to not have one’s hands on something”
Usage: Procrastination is a big problem for many people and that is exactly what this idiom is talking about. You either are lacking the motivation to do a task that you need to do or you are just not sure where to start.Example
A: 저는 요즘 게을러져서 일을 손 놓고 있어요. (jeoneun yojeum geeulleojyeoseo ireul son nohgo isseoyo.)
A: I’ve been lazy these days so I’m not working.
눈코 뜰 새 없이 바쁘다 (nunko tteul sae eopsi bappeuda)
Literally: “to be so busy that you do not even have time to open your eyes or nose”
Usage: As you can probably guess, this idiom is used when you or someone else is very busy. This is a great one to use during exam season or when you have an important deadline coming up.Example
A: 요즘 시험 기간이어서 눈코 뜰 새 없이 바빠요. (yojeum siheom gigan-ieoseo nunko tteul sae eopsi bappayo.)
A: These days I’m so busy because it’s exam time.
Along with school and work, our social relationships are also a huge part of our lives and a typical topic of conversation. We often talk about our friends or colleagues so let’s look at a few idioms used to talk about people.
Korean idioms about relationships and social interactions
발이 넓다 (bari neolpda)
Literally: “to have big feet”
Usage: Do you know any social butterflies? In Korean, you can say that they have big feet. Maybe they do not actually have big feet but this expression is used to talk about someone who has a big circle of acquaintances or a large social network.
A: 민수 씨 어때요? (minsu ssi eottaeyo?)
B: 진짜 외향적이에요. 발도 정말 넓어요. (jinjja oehyangjeogieyo. baldo jeongmal neolpeoyo.)
A: What is Minsu like?
B: He is very outgoing. He’s a social butterfly.
호랑이도 제 말 하면 온다 (horangido je malhamyeon onda)
Literally: “talk about the tiger and it will come”
Usage: This is another Korean idiom that has a similar English counterpart: “speak of the devil.” This one is used when you are talking about someone and that person just so happens to walk into the room or call/message you at that same moment.Example
A: 요즘 지민 씨 만났어요? (yojeum jimin ssineun mannasseoyo?)
지민이 방으로 걸어 들어온다 (jimini bangeuro georeo deureoonda)
B: 와~ 호랑이도 제 말 하면 와요. (wa~ horangido je malhamyeon wayo.)
A: Have you met Jimin recently?
Jimin walks into the room
B: Wow! Speak of the Devil.
손발이 맞다 (sonbari majda)
Literally: “(our) hands and feet match”
Usage: Do you have a friend, colleague, or classmate that you are close to? Maybe you often have the same interests or ideas. Similar in meaning to “2 peas in a pod” in English, 손발이 맞다 means that two people are very close or “in cahoots” with one another.
A: 민서하고 서연이 친하지요? (minseohago seoyeoni chinhajiyo?)
B: 네, 정말 친해요. 손발이 맞아요. (ne, jeongmal chinhaeyo. sonbari majayo.)
A: Are Minseo and Seoyeon close?
B: Yes, they are very close. They are like 2 peas in a pod.
사랑이 식다 (sarangi sikda)
Literally: “love gets cold”
Usage: This is a bit of a sad one but it means that love for someone or something is fading.
A: 저는 여자친구랑 헤어졌어요. 사랑이 식은 것 같았어요. (jeoneun yeojachingurang heeojyeosseoyo. salangi sigeun geos gatasseoyo.)
A: I broke up with my girlfriend. I think our love is fading.
친구 따라 강남 간다 (chingu ttara gangnam ganda)
Literally: “to follow one’s friend to Gangnam”
Usage: You started listening to K-pop and now your friend also listens to K-Pop. You started watching Korean dramas, and now your friend also watches Korean dramas. You started studying Korean and now your friend also studies Korean. Do you know someone who always follows what other people do? This idiom is used to talk about someone who always wants to do anything their friend does.
A: 엄마, 나도 친구처럼 축구 배우고 싶어요. (eomma, nado chingucheoreom chukgu baeugo sipeoyo.)
B: 친구 따라 강남 간다더니 너도 축구를 배우고 싶구나. (chingu ttara gangnam gandadeoni neodo chukgureul baeugo sipguna.)
A: Mom, I want to learn soccer like my friend does.
B: Just because your friend is learning soccer you want to.
발 없는 말이 천 리를 간다 (bal eopsneun mari cheonrireul ganda)
Literally: “Even without feet, a horse can go a thousand miles”
Usage: This idiom means that stories and rumors can travel very quickly. This one is used as a kind of warning to tell someone that they should be careful when they talk.Example
A: 발 없는 말이 천 리를 간다고 말을 조심히 해야 한다. (bal eopsneun mari cheonrireul gandago mareul josimhi haeya handa.)
A: You should be careful what you say, rumors travel quickly.
낮말은 새가 듣고 밤말은 쥐가 듣는다 (najmareun saega deutgo bammareun jwiga deutneunda)
Literally: “A bird hears words spoken during the day, a mouse hears words spoken at night”
Usage: This is similar to the last one. It means to be careful what you say because someone is always listening.
A: 낮말은 새가 듣고 밤말은 쥐가 듣는다고 입 조심해. (najmareun saega deutgo bammareun jwiga deutneundago ip josimhae.)
A: Watch your mouth, rumors travel fast.
When we are working, going to school, or interacting with people, we all make mistakes. Whether we want to admit it or not, everyone will make a mistake at some point. Here are some idioms used to talk about making mistakes or to reassure someone after they have made a mistake.
Korean idioms about mistakes
아는 길도 물어(서) 가라 (aneun gildo mureo(seo) gara)
Literally: “Even on a known road, ask first how to go (ask for directions first)”
Usage: This is similar in meaning to the English idiom “measure twice, cut once.” Don’t be overconfident! Even when you think you know the answer or how to do something, it is always better to ask rather than to risk making a mistake.Example
A: 아는 길도 물어 가라고 준비를 철저히 해야 해요. (aneun gildo mureo garago junbireul cheoljeohi haeya haeyo.)
A: To prepare well, you need to ask how.
원숭이도 나무에서 떨어진다 (wonsungido namueseo tteoreojinda)
Literally: “Even monkeys fall out of trees”
Usage: You can use this idiom to reassure someone who has made a mistake. It means that, even if you are good at something, you can still make a mistake.
A: 앗! 제 실수에요. 죄송합니다. (as! je silsueyo. joesonghapnida.)
B: 괜찮아요. 원숭이도 나무에서 떨어질 수 있어요. (gwaenchanhayo. wonsungido namueseo tteoleojil su isseoyo.)
A: Oops! It’s my mistake. I’m sorry.
B: It’s okay. Everyone makes mistakes.
낯(이) 두껍다 (nacc(i) dukkeopda)
Literally: “Thick face”
Usage: Do you know anyone who is overly confident and feels they can never make a mistake? This expression describes that kind of person, someone who is shameless and does not learn from their mistakes.
A: 너는 정말 낯이 두껍고 뻔뻔하구나! (neoneun jeongmal nacci dukkeopgo ppeonppeonhaguna!)
A: You are so shameless and brazen!
눈감아 주다 (nungama juda)
Literally: “To close one’s eyes”
Usage: In English we use a similar expression, “let it slide.” This is used when you see something bad happen or know that someone has made a mistake but you choose to ignore it. For example, if someone has made a mistake at work, but this is the first time, you might let it slide this time.Example
A: 이번에는 제가 눈감아 줄테니까 다음부터는 실수하지 마세요. (ibeoneneun jega nungama jultenikka daeumbuteoneun silsuhaji maseyo.)
A: I will let it slide this time, but please don’t make this mistake next time.
하늘이 무너져도 솟아날 구멍이 있다 (haneuri muneojyeodo sosanal gumeongi issda)
Literally: “Even though the sky collapsed, there is a hole to jump out”
Usage: Obviously, having a need to use this in a non-idiomatic way would be terrifying! But, as an idiom, this means that every problem has a way out. This is another one that can be used to reassure someone who has made a mistake that there is always a way out.
A: 하늘이 무너져도 솟아날 구멍이 있다고, 다른 방법을 생각해야 해요. (haneuri muneojyeodo sosanal gumeongi issdago, dareun bangbeobeul saenggakhaeya haeyo.)
A: There is always another way, you should think of a different method.
생각이 짧다 (saenggagi jjalpda)
Literally: “One’s thought is short”
Usage: This means that someone did an action or said something without thinking it through. Typically this results in the person being unintentionally rude or doing something that they regret.
A: 제 친구는 생각이 (정말) 짧아서 답답합니다. (geu sarameun saenggagi (jeongmal) jjalpaseo dapdaphapnida.)
A: My friend really never thinks before he speaks so I’m frustrated.
You have already seen a few examples of idioms using words for body parts in the previous examples such as: 눈감아 주다, 발이 넓다, 제 눈에 안경이다, 손발이 맞다, 어깨가 무겁다, 눈코 뜰 새 없이 바쁘다. Korean has a ton of idioms that use body parts so let’s look at a few more.
Korean idioms that include body parts
믿는 도끼에 발등 찍힌다 (mitneun dokkie baldeung jjikhinda)
Literally: “to get stabbed in the foot by an axe you trust”
Usage: This is similar to “to stab someone in the back” in English. You can use this when you trusted someone but they betrayed you.
A: 저는 그 사람을 믿고 있었는데, 믿는 도끼에 발등을 찍혔어요. (jeoneun geu sarameul mitgo isseossneunde, mitneun dokkie baldeungeul jjikhyeosseoyo.)
A: I trusted that person, but she stabbed me in the back.
귀가 얇다 (gwiga yalpda)
Literally: “to have thin ears”
Usage: In Korean, if you have thin ears it means that you are gullible. You will believe anything someone tells you, even when it is completely unbelievable.
A: 제 친구는 귀가 얇아서, 아무나 잘 믿어요. (je chinguneun gwiga yalpaseo, amuna jal mideoyo.)
A: My friend is gullible so he trusts anyone.
귀(를) 기울이다 (gwi(reul) giurida)
Literally: “to tip or turn one’s ears”
Usage: This is a way to say “listen carefully.”
A: 제가 하는 말에 귀를 기울이고 들으세요. (jega haneun male gwileul giuligo deuleuseyo.)
A: Please listen carefully to what I say.
눈이 뒤집히다 (nuni dwijiphida)
Literally: “eyes turn upside down”
Usage: In English you will sometimes hear people say, “I was so mad that I saw red.” In Korea, you don’t see red. Instead, your eyes turn upside down! You can use this when you are very angry or full of rage. It can also mean that someone is crazy about something (but usually in a bad way, like the example below).
A: 저 남자는 눈이 뒤집혀서 도박을 하고 있어요. (jeo namjaneun nuni dwijiphyeoseo dobageul hago isseoyo.)
A: He is crazy about gambling.
입에 맞다 (ibe majda)
Literally: “it matches my mouth”
Usage: What kind of food suits your palate or “matches your mouth?” 입에 맞다 is used to say that you like a food. Do you like spicy food? If not, you can use the opposite expression which is: 입에 안 맞다
A: 이 음식은 제 입에 맞지 않아서 먹기 힘드네요. (i eumsigeun je ibe majji anhaseo meokgi himdeuneyo.)
A: This food is hard to eat because it doesn’t suit my palate.
배가 아프다 (baega apeuda)
Literally: “have a stomachache”
Usage: You probably already know this sentence if you have been studying Korean for even a short time. This is how you say, “I have a stomachache.” However, this expression also has an idiomatic meaning. When used as an idiom it means that you are envious of someone, especially you feel that they don’t deserve their success, happiness, or luck. So be careful when using it!
A: 제 친구가 이번에 집을 사서 정말 배가 아파요. (je chinguga ibeone jibeul saseo jeongmal baega apayo.)
A: My friend bought a house so I am jealous.
Learning idioms and using them in your conversations will make your Korean more interesting and native-sounding. Choose the idioms that you think will be the most useful in your life and practice them often so that you can easily use them whenever you want. A useful tip for practice is to pick an idiom you would like to learn, imagine some scenarios in which you could use it, and write down a conversation. You can easily re-read what you have written in order to review and, because it is in the form of a conversation, it will be a lot easier for you to remember. This will help you memorize the idiom and also recognize when you can use it in an actual conversation.