Wednesday, April 21, 2021

What are silkworm cats (蠶猫 잠묘)?

 ANSWER: They are the cats that eat the rats that eat the silkworms.

Rats apparently like to eat silkworms (누에), so in China and other countries that raised silkworms, cats were used to protect the silkworms from the rats. These cats were called "silkworm (蠶 잠) cats (猫 묘)." And apparently the Chinese believed that even pictures of cats stuck to the walls of the silkworm rooms would help scare away the rats.

Friday, April 16, 2021

Which animal guards a palace?

 ANSWER: the gecko

The Sino-Korean word for "gecko" is 수궁 (守宮), which literally means " keep or guard (守) a palace (宮)." But besides meaning "palace," my Chinese character dictionary says that  궁 (宮) can also mean "house" (집), so 수궁 (守宮) could also literally translate as "protect (守) a house (宮)."

But how could a gecko protect a house? Maybe by eating any bugs that invade it.

From Dong-A's Prime Korean-English Dictionary

What does 경지 (境地) literally mean?

 ANSWER: bordered (境) land (地) or land with borders

The first definition for 경지 (境地) in my Korea-English dictionary is "a state," "a condition," "a stage," or "circumstances," but the word literally means "bordered (境) land (地)" since 경 (境) can mean either "border" or "boundary" and 지 (地) can mean "place" or "land."

So, how did a word that literally means "bordered land" (지경) come to mean "a state" or "a condition"?

In English, the word "state" can mean either "a country (with borders)" or "a condition," so when the Chinese first saw the English word "state" with the meaning of "condition," I wonder if they misinterpreted it to mean the "state" meaning "country" and then later just continued to use the word 경지 (境地) to mean both the "country" state and the "condition" state?

It just seems strange to me that the Korean word 경지 (境地) has a double meaning similar to that of the English word "state." Can it just be a coincidence?

By the way, if you switch the order of the Chinese characters in 경지 (境地), you get the word 지경 (地境), which my Korean-English dictionary translates both as "a border" and as "a condition." That means 경지 and 지경 have similar meanings, except that the first definition of 경지 is "a condition" while the first definition of of 지경 is "a border."

From Dong-A's Korean-English Dictionary

From Dong-A's English-Korean Dictionary

What does 소읍 (小邑) literally mean?

 ANSWER: small (小) town (邑)

Today I came across the following Korean sentence:

저희 아버지는 작은 소읍에서 교편을 잡고 계십니다.

My father teaches (교편을 잡다) in a small town.

Note: The phrase 교편을 잡다 translates as "to teach," but it literally means "to hold (잡다) a teacher's pointer or ruler (교편)."

The Sino-Korean word 읍 (邑) translates as "town," so since 소 (小) means "small," 소읍 (小邑) literally means "small (小) town (邑)," which could be written in pure Korean as 작은 고을 or 작은 마을 since 작은 means "small" and since 고을 can translate as "town." That means the phrase 작은 소읍 in the above Korean sentence literally means "small (작은) small town (소읍)," which is redundant. This kind of redundancy seems to happen a lot in Korean, usually when Koreans are mixing pure Korean words with Sino-Korean words. 

Therefore, instead of 작은 소읍, it would be better to write either just 소읍, 작은 읍, or 작은 고을.

By the way, the Sino-Korean word for "big town" is 대읍 (大邑), which literally means "big (大) town (邑)." It could also be written as 큰 읍 or 큰 고을.

From Dong-A's Prime Korean-English Dictionary

From Dong-A's Prime Korean-English Dictionary

From Dong-A's Prime Korean-English Dictionary

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

What does 망양보뢰 (亡羊補牢) literally mean?

 ANSWER: Fix the [sheep] pen after losing the sheep.

The Korean expression 망양보뢰 (亡羊補牢) literally means "lose (亡) the sheep (羊) [and then] fix (補) [the sheep] pen (牢)." It is similar to the English expression "close the barn door after the cow has gotten out," but while the English expression suggests that it is too late to fix the problem, the Korean expression seems to suggest that fixing the problem after the damage is done will at least stop it from happening again. In other words, the Korean expression seems to suggest that it is never too late to fix a problem, at least according to the Korean video below.

From Dong-A's Prime Korean-English Dictionary

Sunday, April 11, 2021

In Korea, can a little daughter be bigger than a big daughter?


In Korean, 큰딸 means "eldest or elder daughter" but literally translates as "big (큰) daughter (딸)," and 작은딸 means "youngest or younger daughter" but literally translates as "small daughter," so the "big" (큰) and "small" (작은) in these words refer to "age," not "size." Therefore, it is possible for the younger of two daughters to be bigger in size than the elder.

Who was Lee Jung-seob (이중섭 李仲燮)?

 ANSWER: Lee Jung-seob (이중섭) was a Korean artist who was born and raised (1916 - 1956) in Korea while Korea was still under Japanese rule. He married a woman named Yamamoto Masako and had three children of whom one died in 1946. Out of financial hardship and fear for his family's safety, he sent his wife and two remaining children to Japan to live during the Korean war. Though their separation was meant to be only temporary, Mr. Lee was never able to be with his family again, except during a 5-day visit to Tokyo in 1953. He is probably most well known for an oil painting called "The White Ox" (흰소), but he is also known for the letters and postcards he sent to his wife and children in Japan. Mr. Lee died of hepatitis in 1956 when he was only 40 years old. 

The photos below are of a book I have on Mr. Lee. The first photo is of the cover of the book, the second is of his painting "The White Ox," and the third is of one Mr. Lee's letters to his wife. Notice that the letter was written in Japanese and decorated with pictures. I have also added a link to a YouTube video about Mr. Lee, and you can read more about Lee Jung-seob HERE.

What does 영어 (英語) literally mean?

 ANSWER: The Language of Heroes

The Korean word for "English" is 영어 (英語), which can literally translate as "heroes' (英) words or language (語)." That means 영국 (英國), the Korean word for "England," can literally translate as "Heroes (英) Country (國)" or "The Land of Heroes." The 영 (英) in 영어 (英語) and 영국 (英國) is the same 영 used in 영웅 (英雄), the Korean word for "hero."

Actually, the Chinese character 英 (영) can mean either "corolla (flower petals)" or "hero," so that means 영어 (英語) could also literally translate as "The Language of Flower Petals," and 영국, "The Land of Flower Petals."

Saturday, April 10, 2021

What does 침소봉대 (針小棒大) literally mean?

 ANSWER: Needles (針) are small (小), clubs (棒) are big (大).

My Korean-English dictionary defines 침소봉대 (針小棒大) as "exaggeration" or "overstatement," but the expression literally means "needles (針) are small (小), clubs (棒) are big (大)."

If someone tells you that "needles are small, clubs are big," the person is suggesting that you are exaggerating a problem or situation. In other words, the person is suggesting that you are trying "to make a big club out of a small needle," which is equivalent to the English expression "making a mountain out of a molehill."

From Dong-A's Prime Korean-English Dictionary

How do you turn a ㄹ into a ₩?

 ANSWER: If you can type Korean letters on your computer, first type ㄹ and then hit the "Ctrl" key on the righthand side of your keyboard, not the "Ctrl" key on the left-hand side. This causes a menu to pop up. From the menu, select ₩ with your mouse or type 3.

You can get other symbol menus by typing other Korean letters and hitting the same "Ctrl" key. This trick does not work with the letters of the English alphabet.

Sunday, April 04, 2021

Can trees make paths?

 ANSWER: Yes, according to the Chinese.

The Chinese saying 桃李不言, 下自成蹊 (도리불언, 하자성혜) literally translates as follows:

Peach (桃) [and] plum trees (李) do not (不) speak (言), [yet] beneath [themselves] (下自) [they] make (成) paths (蹊).

But how do they make paths? With their beautiful blossoms and tasty fruit, the trees attract people who make the paths.

The expression can also be used to refer to people who are so virtuous that they can attract followers and admirers without saying a word, but rather by simply being virtuous and doing good deeds.

What does 대우탄금 (對牛彈琴) literally mean?

 ANSWER: facing a cow and plucking an oriental harp

대우탄금 (對牛彈琴) can literally translate as "facing (對) a cow (牛) [and] plucking (彈) an oriental harp (琴)." The expression is used to refer to something done for someone who does not have the intellectual ability or desire to understand or appreciate what is being done, so the effort is a waste of time. Here is an example sentence from a Korean book entitled "고사성어 대백과," which can translate as "Encyclopedia of Old Chinese Character Idioms."

아무리 좋은 강의도 그것을 이해할 수 없는 학생들에게는 대우탄금이랄 수 밖에 없다.

No matter how good the lecture, it is a waste of time if the students cannot understand it, like plucking a harp in front of cows.

The expression 대우탄금 is not in my Korean-English dictionary, which suggests that it is not a commonly used expression, but most Koreans have still probably heard of it. It is a 4-character Chinese idiom based on an old story. Koreans refer to such idioms as 고사성어 (故事成語), which literally means "ancient (故) incident (事) created (成) phrases (語)." If a 4-character Chinese idiom is not based on an old story, then Koreans simply refer to them as 사자성어 (四字成語), which literally means "four (四) character (字) created (成) phrases (語). The story behind the 대우탄금 idiom is as follows:

A man in the ancient Chinese state of Lu (노국 魯國) wanted to do something nice for his hard-working cow, so he started playing his harp in front of the cow, but the cow showed no sign of interest and just continued to eat the nearby grass. The man then made the sound of a mosquito (모기의 울음소리), which caused the cow to swish its tail. After that, the man made the sound of a crying calf (송아지의 울음소리), which caused the cow to raise its ears. This showed the man that the cow was smart enough to understand and appreciate the sounds of a mosquito and a crying calf but not the sounds of a harp. 
Here is a very good Korean-language video explaining the Chinese idiom 대우탄금 and the story behind it.

Monday, March 15, 2021

What does 와잠 (臥蠶) literally mean?

 ANSWER: a sleeping silkworm

In the Chinese novel "Romance of the Three Kingdoms," Kuan Yu (관우 關羽), one of the three main characters,  was described as having "the eyebrows of a sleeping silkworm" (臥蠶眉 와잠미). The Chinese character 臥 (와) means "to lie down," "to rest," or "to sleep," 蠶 (잠) means "silkworm," and 眉 (미) means "eyebrows."

So, here is my real question: "Are the eyebrows of a sleeping silkworm different from those of one that is awake?"

ANSWER: I don't think so. I suspect that 臥蠶 (와잠) meant something besides just "a sleeping silkworm." 

My Korean-English dictionary defines 아미 (蛾眉) as "eyebrows of a beautiful woman," "arched eyebrows," or "shapely eyebrows," but the Sino-Korean word literally means "moth (蛾) eyebrows (眉)" and refers to the eyebrows of a silkworm moth or a silk moth.

So, instead of just meaning "a sleeping silkworm," could 臥蠶 (와잠) have been the Chinese name for "a silk moth"?

From Dong-A's Prime Korean-English Dictionary

A silk moth

Friday, March 12, 2021

What's worse than a butt-kisser?

 ANSWER: a hemorrhoid-licker

The Chinese character for "lick" is 舐 (지), and the Chinese character for "hemorrhoids" or "piles" is 痔 (치), which is the same 치 used in 치질 (痔疾), the Sino-Korean word for "hemorrhoids." So, the Chinese phrase 舐痔 (지치) literally means "lick (舐) hemorrhoids (痔)," which my Chinese character dictionary says is used to refer to "a flatterer" (아첨쟁이) or "butt-kisser."

I noticed the phrase "hemorrhoid-licker" this morning as I was looking up how many characters were under the Chinese radical 舌 (설), which means "tongue."

Anyway, now you can go back to eating your breakfast.

From 활용대옥편, Chinese Characters Dictionary

Monday, March 08, 2021

What does 황육 (黃肉) literally mean?

 ANSWER: yellow (黃) meat (肉)

My Korean-English dictionary defines 황육 (黃肉) as "beef," but it literally means "yellow (黃) meat (肉)."

Korean friend: "Would you like some yellow meat?"

Me: "No thank you."

From Dong-A's Prime Korean-English Dictionary

Friday, February 26, 2021

Thursday, February 25, 2021

What does 별주부 (鱉主簿) literally mean?

 ANSWER: the Snapping Turtle Herbalist

The word 별주부 (鼈主簿) can translate as "snapping turtle" (자라), but it literally means "The Snapping Turtle (鼈) Herbalist (主簿)." An herbalist is someone who uses plants to make "herbal medicines," which were commonly used to treat various illnesses in old Korea and are still used in Korea today. So, in old Korea, an herbalist was essentially a doctor. Korean doctors also used the organs of animals to make tonics and medicines.

The word 별주부 comes from an old Korean fable entitled 별주부전, which can translate as "The Tale of the Snapping Turtle Herbalist." The story is also referred to as 토끼전, which can translate as "The Tale of the Rabbit." Here is my summary of the story:

The Dragon King of the South Sea (남해의 용왕) gets sick and none of the medicines in his sea kingdom can cure his illness. It seems the Dragon King may even die. After praying to Heaven for a cure, a supernatural being (신선) comes down and tells the Dragon King that he can cure his illness by eating the hot liver of a rabbit, which means the rabbit would have to be alive just before the Dragon King eats its liver. However, the rabbit is a land animal, so since the Dragon King, who has lived under the sea all of his life, does not know what a rabbit looks like, the supernatural being describes what a rabbit looks like and then disappears. 

When the Dragon King asks for a volunteer to go on land to capture a rabbit for him, at first no one steps forward, but then the Snapping Turtle Herbalist says he will go if he has a drawing of what a rabbit looks like. The Dragon King orders the abalone (전복) to describe a rabbit while the royal artist draws a picture of one based on the description. The Snapping Turtle Herbalist then takes the drawing and leaves the sea kingdom to go find a rabbit on land. 

Once on land, the Snapping Turtle Herbalist meets a fresh-water turtle (남생이) who points him in the direction he should go to find a rabbit. The Snapping Turtle Herbalist eventually finds a rabbit and tricks it into going back with him to the sea kingdom of the Dragon King. When the rabbit gets to the sea kingdom and realizes that the Dragon King is about to cut open his belly and eat his liver, the rabbit lies and says that he had taken out his liver and left it on land before coming to the sea kingdom, but says he is willing to go back and get it. The Dragon King believes him and lets him go back to land with the Snapping Turtle Herbalist. 

Once safely back on land, the rabbit angrily chides the the Snapping Turtle Herbalist, saying, "How could I walk around without a liver, you dummy? "If you want to take something back to the Dragon King, take this rabbit poop. It is supposed to be good medicine." 

The Snapping Turtle Herbalist has no other choice but to take the rabbit poop back to the Dragon King, who eats it and is miraculously cured.

The above version of the story may be slightly different from other versions, but it is based on the Korean language one I read.

In the following Korean video, a woman tells the story of the Snapping Turtle Herbalist, using lots of interesting pictures and explanations, but she talks pretty fast.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

What does 다반사 (茶飯事) literally mean?

 ANSWER: a tea (茶) and rice (飯) matter (事)

Koreans drink tea, Koreans eat rice;

한국인은 차(茶) 마시고, 밥(飯) 먹는다.

For them, it's a common, daily routine.

그들에게는 일상대반사(日常茶飯事)이다. 

The Chinese character for "tea" is 茶 (다), and the character for "boiled rice" is 飯 (반), so since 事 (사) can translate as "work," "occurrence" or "matter," the phrase 다반사 (茶飯事) can literally translate as "a tea (茶) and rice (飯) matter (事)." And since 일상 (日常) can translate as "daily," 일상다반사 (日常茶飯事) can translate as "a daily event" or "an everyday occurrence (affair)."

From Dong-A's Prime Korean-English Dictionary

Monday, February 22, 2021

Can you learn Chinese characters without learning to write them?

 ANSWER: Yes, but it is harder.

I like the guy in the video below, and the friendly way he talks, but I disagree with him on the need to write Chinese characters. He suggests that Koreans only need to learn to read them, not write them, since Koreans do not generally write in Chinese characters these days. But the reason you need to practice writing Chinese characters is that writing them helps you remember them. Writing a Chinese character is a test of your understanding of the character. If you cannot write the character, then you do not ready understand it. Not knowing how to write a Chinese character is like not knowing how to spell a word in English or Korean. Just being able to read a word doesn't mean you really know the word.
Also, since Chinese characters are often composites of two or more characters, writing a Chinese character helps to refresh your memory of the characters that combine to form the character. For example, the Chinese character 明 (명), which means "bright," is made by combining the characters for "sun" (日 일) and "moon" (月)," so each time you practice writing 明 (명), you are also practicing writing 日 (일) and 月 (월).
Finally, I have found that writing Chinese characters relaxes me. Before you go to sleep at night, try writing ten different Chinese characters ten times each. I think you will sleep better.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

What does 대담 (大膽) literally mean?

 ANSWER: big (大) gallbladder (膽)

My Korean-English dictionary defines 대담 (大膽) as "bold," "daring," or "intrepid," but it literally means "big (大) gallbladder (膽)." And it defines 담력 (膽力) as "courage," "pluck," or "nerve," but 담력 literally means "gallbladder (膽) strength or energy (力)."

The pure Korean word for gallbladder is 쓸개, and since the word 빠지다 can mean "be omitted" or "be missing," the phrase 쓸개(가) 빠진 놈 literally means "a man without a gallbladder," which can translate into English as "a man with no backbone" or "a man with no courage."

I find it kind of interesting that Koreans describe a man as being "bold," "daring," or "intrepid" by saying he has a "big gallbladder (대담 大膽)," while in the United States we often describe such a man as having "big balls" or "big cajones," which means "big testicles."

From Dong-A's Prime Korean-English Dictionary

From Dong-A's Prime Korean-English Dictionary