This entry is part 29 of 66 in the series SF in South Korea

One of the fascinating things that keeps coming up in my Korean lessons is the generation gap. It’s not that I was unaware of this before, but my tutor has made a careful point of noting when she shows  me a word that older people either won’t find appropriate in speech, or which she considers a “young people” word.

One example is 찌질하다, which is a word I can’t quite translate into English. My tutor explained it as something that someone would say to a friend who is acting like goof or a geek, but at a party a few days later — literally, just a few days later — Kim Sang Hoon (the Korean translator) and Dr. Q  (ie. Kim Kyu Hyun) were explaining to me the special sense of the word in a little more detail. It’s not precisely geekiness, but rather a kind of overtly childish mode of behaviour that at once comes across as vaguely put-on or conscious but also endearing. At least, that’s what I got from it. Dr. Q said he thought it should become a regular word in English, since Americans do it all the time — and he’d know better than me, he lives in the States. Sang Hoon Kim specifically mentioned the website of a famous Korean genre author and the discussion boards there in relation to being behaving like a 지찔이.

Anyway, there are tons of examples of this, but I’ll just recount one more that is pretty surprising: 오크. At least, I think this is how it is spelled. The word is the Koreanization of “orc,” a word Iimagine was, for most Koreans aside from online gamers and dedicated fans of fantasy literature and media, mostly unknown until 2002, when the first Lord of the Rings film was released here… just as it probably was unknown or forgotten for a large number of Westerners, for that matter. (I imagine most of my non-D&D-playing friends in high school might have encountered the word at some point, but wouldn’t remember what it wqas or, at least, wouldn’t ever have used it in conversation)

Well, my tutor used the word “orc” in passing while describing a nasty incident at the subway station, in the course of illustrating her agreement that our neighborhood is rough and weird and full of unsavory characters.

This guy wants your seat on the subway.

I said, “오크? 오크 뭐예요?” (Orc? What’s an orc?) She smiled and said, “Young people use that word to describe people who are soooooo ugly…” and then described the Korean version of being ugly as sin, based on the specific example: dark, dark brown skin like a farmer’s; tiny, nasty little beady eyes; a broad face; nasty hair; and — this took a little dictionary consultation — pock marks in the skin as if from a long-ago bout of smallpox.

The specifics of that aside — this definition of ugly itself is probably at least somewhat generational, because while fifty or sixty or a hundred years ago, before the age of sun creams, paleness might have been a sign of beauty, nonetheless for most I imagine relatively darker skin from working in the sun would have been the norm — it’s fascinating that a word like Orc has entered the Korean vocabulary in such a way that it can be used directly, as a kind of common metaphor one can assume one’s peers will understand without explanation.

(Another one I’ve sometimes heard is Zerg. Which I think are those little doggie-like creatures in the massively popular (in Korea) computer game Starcraft.)

Not because that’s particularly surprising, mind you: English words (and other foreign words) do this all the time, in Korean. (As they do in plenty of languages.) But the fact that foreign genre-related words can carry more popular resonance in a foreign language and (youth-)culture than in the culture of its origin is surprising and fascinating. Think about it: if you were in a pub in London or Toronto, and were complaining about some ugly jerk on the subway, would you call him an “orc”? And if you did, would your friends understand what you meant immediately, and use the word themselves? I can’t  quite imagine that happening in Canada or the US, somehow… at least not outside of an SF convention.

야! 야! 반대말 하지마라, 이 미친 놈아! 아이씨~~~!

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4 thoughts on “Orcs!

  1. It’s entirely possible (considering that they use “zerg” in a similar way) that “orc” entered the idiom more through the Warcraft games (including World of Warcraft) than through Lord of the Rings, although I’m sure LotR can’t have hurt it any. Even non-gamers may have run into people who played WoW, since online gaming has penetrated the culture much more thoroughly over there than in the US even. (And I know people of both genders who would never play D&D or most computer games but who spend loads of time playing WoW…)

    1. Oppa,

      I could use a little help. I’m not really in the loop as far as that discussion goes, so trying to piece together what the heck they’re talking about is a bit difficult. Help?

      By the way, are you really in Osaka as your IP suggests? I’m just curious — I don’t think I have many readers in Japan!

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