What are some of the magic words in Korean? I started thinking about magic words here.

Perhaps my most favorite are the 호칭어[呼稱語]. What are 호칭어? Words used to call someone.. Most (or perhaps all) of these 호칭어 related to family relations are magical. . . because they invoke a familial relation between you and the speaker when they are used. Once you use these words you are no longer strangers, but family. Use this word and familial bonds, duties, and privileges are (almost) automatically granted.

오빠 (Oppa = older brother, girl speaking) is one of these words. If I’m called 오빠 by any of younger friends . . it’s rather hard to not to give in to anything they might want to ask me. Girls know that is a magical word they can use for any guy who is older (usually only a bit older though).

Another magical word is 형 (hyeong = older brother, guy speaking). Every guy likes respect, and Korean guys are no exception to this rule. What a lot of languages don’t have is an easy way to give that respect in just one word. If a Korean guy who is younger than me calls me 형 I start feeling rather positive towards him. Likewise I can show brotherly admiration, respect, and love by invoking the power of the ‘형’ word by calling an older guy 형, or if he is a lot older ,형님.  I’ve actually made several close friends where our friendships started primarily because I called the guy ‘hyeong’.

There are several other familial terms I’ve used with great success. When I first came to Korea I never liked asking grandmothers directions in Seoul. Young people would always stop and try to help. But grandmothers, never. When one evening wandering around Seoul I prefaced my request for help by first getting her attention by calling 할머니 (harmoni = grandmother)she was very helpful. I was no longer a random strange white guy on the street, but her grandson.

Friends of mine have debated whether to call the ajummas in restaurants 이모 (imo = aunt). A lot of Korean guys do it  although some people don’t like it (probably most girls would use 언니 (onni = older sister, girl speaking) instead). However, when I’ve only gotten very good responses using 이모. When I’ve seen friends use it they also seem to get a good response.

There are a few catches to using familial terms.  Like all magical words they have consequences, and although one of the consequence is goodwill and favor, it also includes something on your part. Now you are part of the family, with both rights and responsibilities. A lot of people learning Korean perhaps don’t want to be included in the culture in that way. They’d rather just learn the language and leave the culture at the door, if you please. In they end up with nothing — neither culture, communication or language. However for those who are interested in being reborn into the Korean world rather than just surgically learning the language as a code of ones and zeros, these familial terms will undoubtedly be useful.

Perhaps because of this magical power  quite a few Koreans have a hard time using it as a preface for an English name — it sounds incredibly weird to say Jack오빠 or Roger오빠. All the more reason to get a Korean name!