Knowing some common or interesting Korean idioms is a fun way to take your Korean to the next level! Idioms or 관용구 are phrases that people use to express something more than their literal meaning. You’ll hear and see them everywhere; from TV and movies, music, books, and daily conversation. Some common English ones can be “once in a blue moon (very infrequently)”, “break a leg (good luck)”, and more.
Idioms come from anything; old folklore, traditions, culture, etc. So while being a creative or fun way to express something they can also give you some insight into Korea itself! For example, a lot of idioms have to do with rice because of how important it is to Korea and it’s history. So let’s get into some common Korean idioms and expressions to use!
원숭이도 나무에서 떨어진다
Lit. even monkeys fall from trees
Even an expert can fail and make mistakes.
가재는 게 편이라
Lit. The crayfish sides with the crab
Birds of a feather flock together. People who are alike or like-minded stick together.
Lit. Rice cake in a picture
Something you long for but can’t have. A pie in the sky.
식은 죽 먹기
Lit. Like eating cold porridge
It’s a piece of cake! Something that is really easy to do.
Lit. eyes are high
Having high standards or unrealistic expectations.
Lit. eyes turned upside down
To be out of control or mad, someone who reached their breaking point and snapped.
Lit. Wagging your tail
Trying to seduce or flirt with someone, or flatter and butter up a person. Referenced in this song by Lim Kim.
Lit. have flies flying around
Similar to referencing a tumble weed in English. To be in a slump, and for businesses to have no customers, it’s so empty the only customers you have are flies.
개천에서 용 난다
Lit. a dragon rises up from a small stream.
From rags to riches! Someone who went from a lower economic state to one much higher. Many Korean myths say dragons can rise from the ocean so rising from a stream is seen as unexpected and amazing.
밥 먹여 주나!
Lit. It won’t fill me up with rice!
Let’s be practical! Said when opposing an idea that won’t do any good.
서울에서 김서방 찾기
Lit. Like trying to find Mr. Kim in Seoul
Like trying to find a needle in a haystack. Something too hard to try to find. Because Kim is the most popular surname in Korea and in Seoul there would be countless Mr. Kim’s.
둘이 먹다가 하나 죽어도 모른다
Lit. You wouldn’t notice even if your friend at the same table dies.
Super high praise for a delicious meal. The food is so good that if someone chokes and dies you wouldn’t notice and just keep eating.
Lit. I ate water
I lost out. Implies that you only drank water while others had a full meal, but of course isn’t only used in situations with food!
까마귀 고기 먹었니?
Lit. Did you eat crow meat?
Can you remember anything? Based off of an old folk lore story, where a crow is supposed to deliver a letter but got distracted, forgetting and losing it.
남이 떡이 커 보인다
Lit. Another persons rice cake looks bigger
The grass looks greener on the other side. Idealizing what someone else has or comparing your life in a negative way to others.
죽도 아니고 밥도 아니고
Lit. It’s neither rice nor porridge
It’s neither here nor there. A bad cook who turns rice into a mush that is neither rice nor porridge.