The Korean Wave: The Korean Words Entering English

The "Korean Wave"

In the last decade or so, a wave has swept out of the Korean peninsula and spread anywhere and everywhere. But don’t worry. This wave isn’t made of water. No, it is made of … pop culture!

The word Hallyu, which literally means “Korean Current” or “Korean Wave,” has been used to refer to the wave of Korean pop culture that has swept across the globe and led to a rapid explosion in popularity of Korean music, movies, food, television shows, and video games. Hallyu has exposed us to K-pop, K-dramas, and K-beauty. If you are hooked on the TV series Squid Game or have been enlisted into the BTS ARMY, you’ve already been caught up in Hallyu.

Hallyu isn’t just about learning names of popular K-pop stars, though. It has led to a wider awareness of Korean culture and words from the Korean language. We’ve gathered up some of these words to help explain some of the things that have fueled the momentum of Hallyu.

Note: We often use the words Korea and Korean to refer specifically to the Republic of Korea, commonly known as South Korea.

Hangul (한글)

Hangul (한글)

First, you should know that the Korean language uses an entirely different writing system from English. Korean uses a 24-letter alphabet consisting of 14 consonants and 10 vowels. The name of the Korean alphabet is Hangul, which would be written in the Korean alphabet as 한글 and translates to “great script.”

Because of the different alphabets, the English spellings of all of the words we will look at are merely renderings of how these Korean words would roughly be transliterated in written English. This means that you may come across alternate spellings of many of these words.


How much do you know about the Greek alphabet? Learn about the symbols and more here.

Some important words 

Moving on, let’s look at some words that are useful for getting a bit of understanding into Korean history and culture.


  • Korea: The English word Korea comes from the Goryeo/Koryo dynasty that ruled the Korean peninsula for several hundred years. South Koreans often refer to South Korea or the Korean peninsula as Hanguk (한국). The word Korea is often used to refer both to the Korean peninsula and specifically to the nation of the Republic of Korea (South Korea) located on the southern half of the peninsula.
  • Won: Won (원) refers to Korean currency. Won comes in both coins and dollar bills. Roughly speaking, a US dollar is worth around 1100 Won, but the value frequently changes based on global economics.
  • hanbok: Hanbok (한복) is the traditional Korean attire. The top piece, called a jeogori, resembles a sleeved jacket and is worn by both men and women. To complete hanbok, men wear a vest and pants while women wear a skirt and pantaloons. Typically, hanbok is not worn on a daily basis and is reserved for special occasions.
  • sijo: Sijo (시조) is a Korean poetic form. Similar to the Japanese haiku, sijo typically follows certain guidelines based on numbers of syllables and lines. In general, sijo is intended to be used to compose songs rather than written poems.
Siblings and friends

Siblings and friends

In Korean, different terms of address are used to show respect to people older than you. Some of these terms can also be used among friends or siblings to affectionately refer to one another. Depending on your gender and the gender of the person you’re speaking to, you’ll need to pick out the right word for the job:


  • Oppa (오빠) = Older brother (used by girls/women)
  • Noona (누나) = Older sister (used by boys/men)
  • Unnie (언니) = Older sister (used by girls/women)
  • Hyung (형) = Older brother (used by boys/men)

In 2012, many people may have encountered the word oppa thanks to its repeated use in the massive viral hit song “Gangnam Style” by Korean artist PSY.

kimchi (김치)

kimchi (김치)

Kimchi was a popular dish even before everyone was swept up in Hallyu. Kimchi is a traditional Korean dish that involves a combination of some kind of fermented vegetable with a variety of seasonings. Some popular picks for the vegetable include cabbage, radish, or cucumber. You have a huge number of seasonings to pick from, but some common choices include garlic, ginger, salt, chili pepper, and fish sauce. There are hundreds of kimchi recipes out there, and all that variety might explain its popularity!

Other food

If you’re looking for something to go with your kimchi, there are plenty of other Korean dishes available. Some other Korean foods that make good additions to the menu include:

  • banchan (반찬): Literally “side dishes,” banchan refers to small plates of food served alongside a main meal. Banchan can include any number of small morsels of food, such as seaweed, potato salad, or pickled radishes.
  • bulgogi (불고기): This dish, which translates to “fire meat,” is Korean-style barbeque beef.
  • dongchimi (동치미): Dongchimi is a specific kind of kimchi that uses radishes and hot water.
  • galbi (갈비): Galbi means “ribs,” and this dish refers to Korean-style BBQ short ribs.
  • japchae (잡채): Japchae is a popular festive dish made of stir-fried noodles, meat, and vegetables.
  • kimbap (김밥): Kimbap or gimbap is a Korean snack that is made of a seaweed roll (gim), rice (bap), and whatever else you want to stuff inside!
  • samgyeopsal (삼겹살): This dish refers to Korean grilled pork belly.
  • chimaek (치맥): Chimaek is a fun word that is used in Korean slang to refer to a meal reserved only for the most posh of gourmets: fried chicken and beer! Chimeak is a mashup of the Korean words chikin (chicken) and maekju (beer).

If food speaks to your soul, you’ll want to read about the different dishes that comprise soul food.

mukbang (먹방)

mukbang (먹방)

Mukbang is a livestream of a person socializing with an audience while eating a large amount of food. Mukbang broadcasts were popularized by Korean variety shows in the early 2000s. They’ve become even more popular with the rise of live streaming services, such as YouTube or, that allow mukbang streams to reach international audiences. If your mouth is watering for more information about mukbang streams, you can check out our in-depth profile on this tantalizing trend.

aegyo (애교)

aegyo (애교)

The term aegyo, often translated into English as meaning “cuteness,” refers to the act of acting cute and charming everyone around you with cuteness. If you are at all familiar with the Japanese kawaii, you should already have a good idea about what aegyo entails. The word aegyo is often used to refer to K-pop idols or other Korean celebrities and entertainers that are expected to use their charms to entrance an audience. Mastering aegyo is key to succeeding in these fields, and you’ll often see both male and female K-pop idols making hearts with their hands, puffing their cheeks, and using cutesy dance moves to enhance their aegyo in order to remain popular with fans.

daebak! (대박)

daebak! (대박)

Daebak literally translates to “jackpot” or “big hit.” In practice, it is used as an exclamation to express excitement, joy, or surprise. Basically, it is used in much the same way as the English “Wow!” or “Amazing!”


We think you’ll be equally excited to learn some of the English words that originate from Mandarin and Cantonese.

manhwa (만화)

manhwa (만화)

Manhwa refers to comic books, cartoons, and animation from Korea. The word manhwa could be easily confused with the word manga, which refers to comic books and graphic novels made in Japan. Both of these words are said to have the same Chinese origin, so there is some etymological reason for the mixup.

Manwha and manga often look similar and may be sold in the same sections of bookstores. Unlike Japanese manga, though, Korean manwha is read from left to right rather than right to left.

Blend words

In addition to Korean loanwords, Hallyu has also increased awareness of some words that blend English and Korean together. These words are sometimes used as examples of Konglish, a language phenomenon that mixes English and Korean together and sometimes changing the original English loanword and its meaning.


  • Fighting!: Written in Hangul as either 화이팅 (hwaiting) or 파이팅 (paiting), fighting is used as an encouraging word to spur someone on to success. Spectators might shout fighting at sporting events while cheering on their favorite team, for example.
  • PC bang: A PC bang (PC방) is a Korean internet cafe that rents out computers with internet access to customers. Bang is Korean for room and, as you probably know, PC is a commonly used acronym for “personal computer.” PC bangs are most often used by customers looking for somewhere to play online gaming.
  • skinship: Written in Hangul as 스킨십 (seukinsip), skinship seems to be a blend of the words skin and friendship. Skinship refers to the types of intimate contact used by close friends or family members, such as hand-holding, hugging, and kissing cheeks. Skinship is not intended to be romantic, however it may be used in fiction and by K-pop stars to tease the audience into believing two people might be in a romantic relationship.

Take the quiz

Now that you’ve caught up on the popular terms rolling in from Korea, see if you can stay afloat on this short quiz, preferably served with a spread of banchan, of course.

Keep up your lexical journeys across the Pacific with terms from Japan that have made their way into English.

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Word of the Day

Feb. 7, 2023

Can you guess the definition?

in medias res

[ in mey-dee-ahs reys ]

Can you guess the definition?

Word of the day
in medias res

[ in mey-dee-ahs reys ]

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