Posted : 2009-07-17 19:02
Updated : 2009-07-17 19:02

Korean Words in English

By Kwon Ye-mi

In August 2008, I submitted an essay to the Department of English Literature at Korea Open National University as part of my graduation requirements, in which I explored the ways which new, or borrowed, words become incorporated into English as it used in the United States.

It was titled ``A Brief Survey of Common Words English Has Borrowed." Permit me to share a bit of it with you, as there are some interesting examples of Korean words that have been incorporated into American English.

To begin with, an important question to ask is ``How do words from other cultures arrive to American English?" Much of the English the colonists who settled in America used was influenced by the invasive nature of their settlement. Many words from the native cultures present at the time of settlement were adopted into the lexicon of the settlers, used for things that were new to them and for which they had no words of expression.

Later, American English was further enriched by immigration, trade relationships and other cultural collaborations, worldwide explorations, and other forms of contact with foreign people, including soldiers crossing the borders into other countries.

Americans returning from travels abroad brought back with their baggage new words and expressions. As these imports of language appeared in the media, they became more widely known and some caught on to become popular. Lexicographers then had to decide if the new expressions should enter American dictionaries.

Another important question to ask is ``How do 'loanwords' become official English?" Merriam-Webster's dictionary has long been the foremost authority on the American English language. When a new word is well known and used by the general population, it is considered by the company for entry into the dictionary. Upon that entry, it then becomes an official English word.

A word must pass a ``carefully edited prose" test, according to Webster's editor-at-large, Peter Sokolowski. ``If a word appears frequently in print without parentheses, without appearing in italics, without any kind of explanation, then that's a word that editors and writers assume their readers know and understand," he said. "That word should be in the dictionary."

Another important criterion that lexicographers consider is the ``staying power" of a new word. That is, they try to ensure that the usage is not just a fad or craze. Webster's adds about 100 new words a year to its volume. In a world in which distance is no longer a barrier to explore other cultures, words borrowed from other languages, or loanwords, are on the rise.

One recent example of a Korean word becoming official American English, in July last year, is ``soju." (See Page 7, The Korea Times, July 9, 2008, ``What's The Latest Word? Soju.")

The popular distilled liquor, which originated from around Gaeseong, now in North Korea, in AD 1300, is permitted to be sold by the states of California and New York by businesses with a beer and wine license as long as it contains less than 25 percent alcohol by volume.

The earliest Korean word to enter into American writing was ``kimchi" (also kimchee), around 1898. The American magazine ``Health," which focuses on women's health, named kimchi, the national dish of Korea, on its list of the top-five World's Healthiest Foods.

A popular expression that began with American military personnel living in Korea is ``I'm in deep kimchi," which expresses that one is in trouble or a dangerous situation.

The second Korean word that entered American English was ``taekwondo," in around 1967. Taekwondo has many schools and organizations worldwide and is now part of the Olympic Games. The word ``Hapkido," which names another Korean martial art, followed in 1973 as the third Korean word to enter American English.

An additional question that one might ask is ``Will there be a future of continued borrowings?" I believe that the trend of borrowed words becoming officially added into dictionaries will continue, though not at the same frequency characteristic of earlier times. The borrowing shall continue because more Americans are going abroad for expanded periods of time, and upon return, they bring new words in their speech and writing. Also, migrants from many countries will continue going to America.

American English has accommodated thousands of loanwords, but it need not be in fear of fracturing because of the addition of these new words. Loanwords certainly have not impoverished English. What has been borrowed into American English has brought greater wealth to its word stock.

Korea can be proud that their words have had such an influence and staying power overseas.

The writer is a public elementary school English conversation teacher in Seogwipo, Jeju Province. She can be reached at
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