In Korea, there are words for every social role. Frequently, the job position titles aren’t inherently gendered as they are in French, where a male translator is “traducteur” and a female is “traductrice”. Believe me, it’s not because of a lack of gender equality in the French-speaking world, or because of greater equality of the sexes in Korea; far from it.
Gender is just different in the Korean language. The pronouns we use to address people, for example, are constructed not only to indicate the sex of the person referred to, but also the relative age of the person (relative to the general society as well as to the individual speaking, depending on the word you choose).
For example, calling someone a 할아버지 can indicate that he literally is your gradfather, but as well can simply indicate he’s an old man, presumably somebody’s grandfather. Similarly, calling a woman 아가시 presumes she is youngish, pre-marrying age, and so on. The address words, like 누나 (younger male’s address to an “elder sister”) or 어니 (a younger woman’s address to an “elder sister”) indicate relative age, and with it, a certain potential degree of respect.
There are cute forms of address, like 예감 (grand-dad) and 할멈 (granny) which old couples use to address one another, as well. (Lime and I occasionally use such terms of address fondly, or teasingly when one thinks the other is acting a bit too “old” for his or her age, or just for fun.)
Meanwhile, being called 형 (the way a “younger brother” addresses his “elder brother”) does carry something in it, when the person who says it really means it. And you can tell when they do. I don’t usually like the cheesy way some girls call any man “오빠” (“big brother”), as it’s a term used in those annoying, brainless couples you see around a lot (and it’s also a Korean ero-film stereotype that women call their boyfriends 오빠), I do have one or two friends who uses that term with me from time to time in a respectful, platonic way and it’s as endearing as when a close younger male friend calls me 형.
But the terms I most often use in teasing are words like “아줌마” (married-age woman) and 할아버지 (grandfather). Calling someone a 할아버지 can be an insult if he’s not quite that old, but is stodgy or slow-moving. Or it can be used in jest, conjuring up images of old men in the countryside waking to the sounds of fireworks and going mad thinking North Korea is finally attacking.
Calling someone 아줌마, on the other hand, is likely to win you someone’s hatred, or at least a little resentment. I very occasionally call Lime that when she does something especially ajummonaicial, like being exceedingly careful with money. (Which is not a bad thing, except that somehow when you teasingly call someone ajumma it seems to take on a negative tint, unfortunately.)
Yes, it’s hard to call someone ajumma without making her mad. For example, see this article in the KoreAm journal, where an ajumma finally decides, after some struggle, that she’s okay with being called ajumma. But it’s not an easy decision:
“You’re an ajoomah.” My friend, a 30-year-old Korean male, informs me.
“No, I’m not!” I protest, recoiling at the thought. “I’m not married.”
“Doesn’t matter. You’re 36, so you’re an ajoomah,” he says.
“I’m not 36, I’m 35.” I correct him. “I don’t care if I’m in Korea, I’m still counting my age the American way.”
“Eh, 35, 36,” he continues. “You’re considered an ajoomah now, even if you’re not married.”
I decide he’s not my friend anymore.
Judging by the picture in the article (for which credits go to , I’d say she is an ajumma, but not the kind traditionally meant. The word is, as she alleges, very desexualizing, and you hear at least thrice a year some clever male student inform you of that saying in Korea that there are three sexes, man, woman, and ajumma. (I think they forgot flaccid old granddad and salaryman from that list, but anyway…) But there is, already, a kind of breakdown going on in the terms and nuances of that word ajumma.
In fact, seeing the photo (copied below) reminds me of a term that has probably been invented a number of times in the last 20 years in Korea, in English-teaching offices across the country. I was being stalked by an ajumma from a class I was teaching, she wanted to go to dinner and have drinks and talk with me endlessly and I joked about it, saying she was a “sexy ajumma” compared to the cleaning ladies working in the school buildings. She wasn’t an ajumma, of course, well, not quite, well, sort of… the right age, but unmarried, so I suppose she was only sort-of an ajumma. She wasn’t very sexy at all, but the term later got a lot of use over the years. I remember my friend John using it to describe an ajumma (this one married) who he described as being perfect for a ZZ-Top video, if they only had made one with Korean women. Over the years, I’ve noticed that richer ajummas tend not to turn into the “country ajummas” like the one on the left in the picture. They’re city ajummas, like the woman on the right, or “sexy ajummas”, to use the word we invented. To note, this word isn’t meant to be overly sexualizing, though it is a little bit, like the term “soccer mom” in North America might be.
Click on the photo (for which credits go to Jake Yune) to see the whole article.