The Land of the Morning Neologism

Yeah, I’m talking about Korea. John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar–one of the most neologism-heavy SF novels I’ve ever read–comes to mind quite often as I hear the new neologisms spinning out, month after month. If you’ve never read Brunner’s novel, then I suppose I’ll have to give you a few examples.

된장녀 (Dwenjang Nyeo)

One, of course, was the 된장녀 (dwenjang nyeo), a truly nasty word that translates literally as “soybean paste girl.” Soybean paste, while the basis of a number of Korean dishes (like dwenjang jjigae), is basically a brown stinky fermented bean paste. It’s not all that complimentary, and one gets the sense the term is directed at “girls” who “need to be put in their place.” Or, rather, was directed at them: the word became inescapable a few years ago, and has since subsided. You still hear it, but it’s not on the lips of every ignorant young guy these days.

I’ve written at length about it, though what I wrote didn’t end up being published. I had intended to write it up, and never got around to a full discussion of the origins of the term. However, suffice it to say that women who got called this were supposedly, according to the men who used the term, users; they were depicted as highly and wastefully consumptive, for one thing. Remember when Westerners were still struggling with all the terminology involved in the “new” coffee wave? (For me, this happened around 1996 or so, but I was in Saskatoon.) They were still puzzled what grande, venti, moccachino, frappacino, and latte meant, right? Well, let’s just say that in Korea, until a few years ago, most people who were buying coffee simply had to push one or another button on a coffee machine to get their instant stuff… or they were happy to stir in the powdered coffee extract into hot water. And it cost only W500, instead of the W5,000-ish prices one saw at Starbucks about the middle of the decade.

The Soybean Paste Girls weren’t just stereotyped as being into Starbucks: they also had a passion for American TV (especially the program Sex and the City), and for nice clothes. They tended to want to eat foreign food (Indian, Italian, whatever) that bewildered the men who tried to date them… and impoverished them. Stereotypically, they demanded that boys buy them expensive handbags and clothing items, unlike “normal” girls. If it wasn’t their boyfriends buying this stuff, then it was their beleaguered parents. (Of course, if such a woman were supporting her consumption habits with a job, she would be a Gold Miss… that’s different, supposedly.)

Don’t get me wrong, I have known women (especially in the classroom) who seemed to fit this “type” but they hardly seemed anomalous to me. Women spending W5000 on coffee didn’t seem to ridiculous given how much money men spend on soju (and the “drinking food” one is expected to buy while drinking). Soju is cheap, but anju (drinking food) usually isn’t. And it’s not like the boys in my classes weren’t showing up in fancy clothing, with designer backpacks, and so on. Most of those guys weren’t spending their own hard-earned money either. The criticism was clearly gender-specific, and it showed linguistically. (I asked, almost immediately, what the word was for a man like this, and 고추장남–gochujang nam or “red pepper paste boy” (as illustrated above) was the most common response, but I’m fuzzy on it mostly because it was basically never used except when someone said, “Hey, this is sexist!”)

Some women took up the term, used it ironically. “Let’s be soybean paste girls tonight!” one could say to another, suggesting a girls’ night out with some nice food, coffee, whatever. I only heard it a few times, though, and mostly the currency of the word faded into obscurity with time. I think the guys who were saying it most probably just gave up on reforming these women through scorn. I will say, however, than the guys who used it most often in my experience were also the ones that were most nationalist, most obviously sexist, and… ta-da! the ones who tended to be on Academic Probation. Hey, I’m being honest.

초식남 (Cho Shik Nam)

This is of much more recent vintage than Soybean Paste Girl, I think about a year or so back. A 초식남 (Cho Shik Nam, lit. “herbivore man”) is one of those guys who, well, is nonconformist to norms of masculinity, but in a very specific way.

When I say nonconformity to norms of masculinity, by the way, I should note that I mean Korean norms of masculinity. Here’s an example: when I was a kid in Canada, I got a lot of messages about poetry that were, essentially, nonsense. Poetry was for girly-boys. Poetry was for girls. Poetry was for “fags.” As far as I can tell–and I might be wrong here–in Korea, poetry might be stereotyped as hard, or difficult, or boring, and guys who can recite poems can be described by average women as “cheesy” (Miss Jiwaku told me a story that confirms this, at least) but it’s not so much a gender role issue.

What I am saying is that cultures are both specific and arbitrary–quite specifically arbitrary–in how they construct gender. All kinds of things get coupled with manliness or womanliness, and while some of them are specifically physical traits, like the curve of hips, or the idealized muscle mass ratio, others have basically nothing to do with gender except in the specific social construction. Poetry can be girly in one society, and not in another.

Then add one more point in: societies are constantly in transition. A good example of this is eye makeup. I am pretty sure that most older Korean men and women would feel it’s weird for a man to go out wearing eye makeup. Hell, even a lot of younger men and women think it’s strange; but in class discussions over the last few years, what I’ve found–unsurprisingly–is mixed opinions. One constant surprise was the mix of opinions on that small contingent of men in society who are starting to doll up, to wear makeup, and prettify themselves (the Ggotminam, or “Pretty Flower Boys,” another neologism that I could discuss here, except it’s been discussed at length elsewhere). Women kept saying, “These men do it because women like it.” That was the public script, but when asked, “So, you like it?” most of those same women said they didn’t, and actually found it somewhat “disgusting” or “weird” or “not attractive.” Still, there was a minority who eagerly noted that they did like it, and thought it was only fair that men start spending some time preening in front of a mirror, given how much women end up doing it.

So those norms aren’t stable.

Anyway, that is to say, the Cho Shik Nam is a type that cropped up sometime last year in a lot of discussions to which I was privy. The stereotype of the “herbivore man” seems to be centered on his being less, well, aggressively male than other guys. He’s dating, perhaps, but not as interested in getting sex as average men, not interested in spending his money on girlfriends, but instead spends what he spends on himself. He’s interested in things–books, movies, music, food, or whatever hobby they might have–and quite content to be “into” stuff without some woman distracting him from it or draining resources that could be spent on the hobby. He pays meticulous attention to his looks, but isn’t necessarily obsequiously girly. He is likelier to be thin, though. But, really… it’s his lack of interest in sex that is the main feature of this type, as far as I can tell.

(The ostensible opposite of this “type” is the 짐승남 (Jimseung Nam, or “wild animal man,” but I don’t know much. Miss Jiwaku mostly said it’s body-builder type guys, though I’m guessing they’re probably supposedly sex mad too.)

The Cho Shik Nam is essentially a Japanese type, a foreign cultural import. It’s funny that as Korea is tumbling through its own ongoing modernization, these two prominent types seem to draw on different cultures–women turning to America, and men turning to a Japanese model of alternative masculinity.

There are dozens more such “types,” but I have limited time and interest, so I’m going to jump forward to the “type” that cropped up today, which is probably the most shallow and stupid one I’ve heard so far…

베이글녀 (Bagel Nyeo)

Yes, it sounds like a food reference (and such are pretty ubiquitous in Korea), and of course it is a pun, but the Bagel Nyeo has nothing to do with bagels. Rather, it’s a portmanteau of “Baby face” and “Glamor.” While I assume my readers know what babyface means, it’s worth pointing out that “glamor,” in Korean, is the Konglish euphemism for heing large-breasted or curvy.

Yes, the new “type” known as bagel nyeo is girls with baby fat and large breasts. Oh, and they often wear schoolgirlish clothing.


All I can say is that if Chris and James are right, and it’s middle-aged women driving the fashion of younger men, that likewise it’s the middle-aged male fans of girl groups like Girls’ Generation and The Wonder Girls (as I discussed here) that came to mind when, agape in horror, Miss Jiwaku showed me these pictures:

Click image to see original source.

To be fair, I’ve not heard this one in conversation (yet) and a lot of these dumber neologisms seem to be proliferating. The question is… why?

What Does It All Mean?

Well, I could keep it simple and say that Korean media (and people, it seems, from how a lot of this seems to catch on) like to label people into groups? It certainly seems to me unlike how we do it in North America in a few ways, but I could be clouding the issue by personal reactions. (I find all popcultural “groups” or “trends” weird, but I find the Korean ones weirder, and that may be subjective.)

Beyond that, everything I might observe about the Korean form of such “types” or “labeling” is speculation and my own observation, so take what follows with a grain of salt.

But I think there are interesting parallels with the process of modernity in the West. Lest we forget, North American society also has such “types”–hipsters, for example, or deadheads, or goths. There are a profusion of types, and the spaces between normativity and conformity are shaped differently. Someone can be what would be rather a geek in North American society but relatively average here. Someone can be very average in North American society and rather non-mainstream here.

The main difference I see between the types we use in labeling one another in North America, and the ones in Korea, is that the labeling seems to be elective in the West–people effectively brand themselves (in several sense of the word) as goths, hipsters, or whatever. They make fashion (and sometimes lifestyle) choices that conform (to whatever degree) with the type. The labels in Korea seem to be imposed on behavioral patterns not by those following them–at least not initially–as much as by those who are not members of the group, or who are critical of it.

But, once more, lest we forget, it wasn’t always that way in North America, either. Toward the end of the era when the Gibson Girls (as popularized by an illustrator named Charles Gibson, I think it was) were the ideal:

Camille Clifford, an iconic Gibson Girl

… the flapper looked like a visitor from outer space:

… and as such the flapper was labeled the “New Woman.” They consciously took up the term flapper and, well, wore it as a badge of honor or at least as a functional label, but the term doesn’t seem to have originated with the young women but rather with their critics. Indeed, while reading Joshua Zeizt’s book Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern (a book I am still hoping to review on this blog before year’s end, though I finished it last semester), I kept thinking of the parallels between the Flappers (a “New Woman”  negotiating her position in a society where women’s rights were severely constricted, where generalized ostensible conservativism held sway, and so on) and the Dwenjang Nyeo (whose newfound consumerism, interest in foreign pop culture, and mercantilist dating strategies all have parallels with the Flappers).

Whenever I hear Westerners comparing Korea, in the oppressiveness of the social environment, to the 1950s, I shake my head. Those Westerners are forgetting that the 1950s came after the 1920s,a  period of wild freedom for women (in terms of sexuality, among other things, problematic though it often was for the women involved). Korea’s never really had its 1920s. Which is also to say, most people haven’t quite begun to be desperate for an alternative form of identity-formation yet, like the one that drove geek/nerd culture in America through the Golden Age of SF, and the concurrent rise of SF and comic book fandom–that shift just hasn’t much happened in Korea (as I discussed here).

Or maybe I can say it just hasn’t happened yet… I guess that depends on when you think modern societies inevitably fracture, driving their inhabitants (I almost wrote “inmates”) to seek different patterns along which to formulate their identities. Until then, though, I imagine the Western volitional pattern of labeling and adopting otherness will not hold sway in Korean, and the labeling will continue mostly to be done by people who are labeling others as, well, “other.”

5 thoughts on “The Land of the Morning Neologism

  1. Whenever I hear the term 된장녀 I’m reminded of the time a woman accountant I was working with introduced a man accountant by telling me he was a 된장남 and teasing him about his BMW. Apparently the car was his one extravagant luxury, and she found it to be pretentious enough to warrant a teasing.

    I feel like it’s important to note that a) the phenomenon appears to be real, or at least observable, and b) although the term is gendered, the phenomenon is not, with men taking part in the same ostentatious displays of wealth. The major difference, of course, is that many women choose to express this in ways that *appear* do deviate from cultural norms, and are thus noticed more readily.
    Given this reading, it’s possible to interpret the animosity towards the 된장녀s as actually being directed towards the choice to express the natural human desire to show off in a way that appears to contradict societal norms (I don’t think they do, actually, but that’s not really the point).

  2. Joe,

    Oh, yes. Then again, the comics I’ve seen that seem to have popularized the term suggest that it’s men who cannot afford the BMWs who hate the 된장녀 most. The one comic I have in mind has a guy who is with the absolute stereotype, and she is about to cold shoulder him when she sees his BMW keychain. She suggests they go for a ride in his car, they do, they end up in a hotel, and after sex he lets it slip that he has to get the car back to the dealership where he works, that it isn’t his. She hits him, and this ends the comic.

    In any case, I have to say that I’ve seen the term 된장녀 slung about even with women who didn’t make ostentatious shows of wealth: just liking American TV, liking “real coffee”, or speaking English well was enough for some guys to slap a girl with the term.

    But yes, I agree that in the case where conspicuous consumption is real and derided, it’s usually because it’s a young, supposedly-unattached woman making the display. It’s an inherently sexist term; ironically, the secretary who called the guy a 된장녀 was displaying, I’d argue, the same kind of internalized sexism that makes some women laugh at jokes that make others uncomfortable. (Such as the gags in How I Met Your Mother where the guys start making jokes implying that any man who is emotional, sensitive, or a pushover (ie. weak-willed), has female gentials, in a mocking tone. A friend pointed out, rightly, that this is pretty offensive. But a lot of women don’t notice it, and I have to admit it didn’t jump out at me. The fact that calling a man a “woman” of some sort or other is indicative of the kind of sexism inherent in the term. (It’s even more mocking when it’s used on men than on women, because one’s not only being ostentatious, but ostentatious in the lower, female sort of way.)

    And I don’t think 된장녀 contradict societal norms at all. I think they do present a sort of questioning of gender roles, though: I suspect the thing guys hated most about Starbucks in 2006 or so was seeing all those women talking happily without a single man necessary too have a good time. It was a woman-space back then (and to some degree cafes still are here: the cafe I’m in right now has only one guy in view besides me, and in the hours I’ve been sitting here grading, lots of women have come alone or in groups of other women, but guys never go to cafes alone or with guys; guys only come to cafes with women, in other words, but women come freely without guys. That’s inherently threatening to a lot of (dumb) guys, I think.



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