Sometimes Koreans will throw a proverb in the conversation like it’s no big deal — Koreans love referring to these proverbs and idioms to get their messages across. Such wise words come from generations ago, and most often have proven themselves correct. Try keeping these proverbs close to your heart; they just might help you when you are conflicted.
1. It’s like spitting while lying down. (누워서 침 뱉기다.)
The image is quite clear here. If you spit while lying down on your back, that spit is bound to end up back on your face. This classic Korean proverb advises us not to do such a thing. What you are doing might only be hurting you. If that’s the case, stop spitting and get off your back!
2. Say pretty things to hear pretty things. (가는 말이 고와야 오는 말이 곱다.)
This is the Korean version of “What goes around comes around.” The wise old Koreans knew that life is only a cycle and everything comes back eventually. This simple proverb is all about karma; treat others how you would like to be treated.
3. What you say turns into seeds. (말이 씨가 된다.)
When you plant seeds, they grow. They bear fruits and become real things. Koreans say that sometimes, words are exactly like seeds. What you say could be planted, grown, and turned into reality. This proverb is often used to stop Koreans from saying negative or pessimistic things and risk such things actually happening. Don’t harvest negativity!
4. Bad mushrooms bloom in March. (못된 버섯이 삼월부터 난다.)
March is a little early for anything to be blooming, especially mushrooms that are harvested as late as October. So when Koreans saw how some bad, poisonous mushrooms grow in spring, they decided to make it into a life lesson. This proverb teaches us that when something is wrong, we can tell early on. If something is off, see it as a sign!
5. The cornered rat will bite the cat. (궁지에 빠진 쥐가 고양이를 문다.)
This rhyming proverb means exactly what it sounds like. The most desperate people will do the wildest things. The wise old Koreans realized such extremes result in surprises. This proverb is used to point out that extreme pressure might not always be the answer.
6. The bellybutton is bigger than the belly. (배보다 배꼽이 더 크다.)
This popular proverb is thrown around all the time, especially when it comes to business or finance. Imagine purchasing a cheap shirt only to pay triple the amount for delivery. Is the shirt really so worth it now? Koreans usually say this to advise against a certain minor action that will cost more than it seems or should. Remember, the bellybutton should not be bigger than the belly.
7. The crawfish is on the crab’s side. (가재는 게 편이다.)
And sometimes, you’re not the crawfish or the crab and neither are on your side. Koreans use this proverb to point out that people in similar circumstances will understand each other better and stick together and support each other. For times when blood proves thicker than water, there is another saying that goes “An arm bends inward (팔은 안으로 굽는다)”; family sticks up for family, no matter what.
8. You’ll lose the bunny in hand, trying to catch the one on the run. (가는 토끼 잡으려다 잡은 토끼 놓친다.)
The meaning of this one is easy to guess. Nothing like a frank and straightforward Korean proverb to tell someone to focus on what is at hand, right?
9. A family of talkers makes bitter sauces. (말 많은 집은 장 맛도 쓰다.)
This proverb comes from the old, old days when most Korean families made their own sauces and pastes like soy sauce and red chili paste. Similar to the English phrase “too many cooks spoil the broth,” this phrase refers to the fact that it’s not always better to have more people working on the same job—sometimes a smaller group of dedicated individuals makes better sauce.
10. Value it too long to turn it to poop. (아끼다 똥 된다.)
Lastly, we present to you the poop proverb. Keep this one up your sleeve for friends who can’t get themselves to wear that new pair of sneakers they bought after waiting in line for hours or actually make good use of the expensive set of pans they got as a housewarming gift… and so on. We get it—when something is so new and shiny, it is almost intimidating to use but, remember, keeping it tucked away like a prized gem may not be the answer. It will go to waste for nothing and we only live once.