When you learn Korean, at some point or another, you'll come across Korean idioms. That's because every language has idioms. They come in all shapes or sizes, and they’re often funny or interesting.
In case you’re unsure, an idiom is a collection of words in which the meaning isn’t clear from the words alone.
Imagine hearing the English idiom “break a leg” without having it explained to you. You would have no idea it actually means “good luck”.
Learning Korean idioms is a wonderful experience. You get a window into the culture of the language, as well as its history.
Korean idioms also offer one of the best returns on investment when learning. That’s because once you’ve learned them, you’ll find so many situations in which you can use them. And native speakers will absolutely love that you took the time to learn them too.
Also, as you progress in a language, they’ll help you to learn new Korean vocabulary. Korean idioms tend to be more memorable than the average sentence, and often contain unique and versatile language.
By the way, if you want to learn Korean fast and have fun while doing it, my top recommendation is Korean Uncovered which teaches you through StoryLearning®.
With Korean Uncovered you’ll use my unique StoryLearning® method to learn Korean naturally through story… not rules. It’s as fun as it is effective.
If you’re ready to get started, click here for a 7-day FREE trial.
An Example Korean Idiom
Let’s explore that with the first of our 49 Korean idioms:
- 시간이 쏜 살 같다
- Literal: Time is like an arrow
- Meaning: Time flies
This is a really useful idiom to know in Korean. For one, you’ll be able to use it in many different situations.
Additionally, it will help you to learn several words:
- 시간 (time). This one speaks for itself. A very useful word to know.
- 같다 (seems like). This is a word that you’ll use all the time in Korean.
- 쏜 (arrow). Through this idiom, you’ll be able to memorise a unique word that you otherwise might struggle to remember. And you likely wouldn’t have encountered it otherwise.
You’ll find this all the time with Korean idioms. You’ll get a collection of useful and unique words, basically for free!
So without further ado, let’s look at some Korean idioms! I’ll always give the literal meaning as well as the closest English meaning or idiom.
Occasionally, it might seem like the Korean idioms, the meaning, the comparable English idiom, and the example are all a little different. That’s because sometimes, it can be tough for the meaning of idioms to translate precisely between languages.
In these cases, I’ve tried to convey the overall sense of the idiom without being too literal.
#1 꿩 먹고 알 먹고
- Literal: Eat a bird with an egg in its belly
- Meaning: Killing two birds with one stone
Birds get a bit of a raw deal linguistically, don’t they? We’re always flinging stones at them in English. And Koreans are wantonly eating them – and their unborn children! What did they ever do to us?
- 치약을 사면 칫솔을 사은품으로 준다니 꿩 먹고 알 먹고네 (I bought toothpaste and they gave me a free toothbrush. Two birds one stone!)
#2 서울에서 김서방 찾기
- Literal: Like trying to find Mr. Kim in Seoul
- Meaning: Like finding a needle in a haystack
A personal favourite. 20% of all Koreans have the surname Kim. The implication is that there are so many Mr. Kims in Seoul, finding just one in particular is like trying to find a needle in a haystack!
- 전화번호도 모르고 찾는다니 서울에서 김서방 찾기다 (Trying to find someone without their phone number is like looking for a needle in a haystack!)
#3 눈이 맵다
- Literal: Spicy eyes
- Meaning: Your eyes are hurting
Pretty simple, but useful. You can use this to describe your eyes if they are hurting for any reason.
- 미세먼지 때문에 눈이 맵다 (My eyes are hurting because of the pollution!)
#4 입이 심심하다
- Literal: Bored mouth
- Meaning: Feeling peckish
Another simple, useful idiom. Use it if you’re feeling peckish!
- 뭐가 먹고 싶은데 입이 심심하다 (I’m peckish but I don’t know what I want.)
#5 입이 가볍다
- Literal: Having a light mouth
- Meaning: Can’t keep a secret
Similar in sound to the previous idiom, but very different in meaning. If someone has a light mouth, they can’t help talking and are prone to giving away secrets.
- 지은은 입이 가벼운 사람이다 (Jieun just can’t keep a secret!)
#6 피도 눈물도 없다
- Literal: No blood or tears
- Meaning: To have no mercy/to be merciless
You can use this to describe someone who is without mercy. It’s is also the name of a Korean movie from 2002, called No Blood No Tears in English.
- 독감에 걸렸는데 사장님은 그래도 출근 하라고 한다. 사장님은 피도 눈물도 없는 사람이다. (I said I was sick but the boss said I had to come in anyway. He is merciless!)
#7 어깨가 무겁다
- Literal: Heavy shoulders
- Meaning: Feeling the pressure
One of the more self-explanatory idioms. These kinds of idioms are quite useful as they demonstrate that Korean can be used metaphorically in a very similar way to English.
- 회사를 책임지는 사장이 되어 어깨가 무겁다 (The responsibility of running the company is weighing heavily on me.)
#8 손이 근질근질 하다
- Literal: Itchy hands
- Meaning: Ants in one’s pants
If you have itchy hands in Korean, it means that you’re really keen to get started on something, or you’re excited.
- 일하는 동안 핸드폰 사용은 금지 되어 있기 때문에 손이 근질근질 하다 (I can’t touch my phone all day at work, I can’t wait to use it.)
#9 입이 근질근질 하다
- Literal: Itchy mouth
- Meaning: You want to spill the beans
If your mouth is itchy in Korean, it means you can’t wait to tell a secret that’s on your mind. These last two are easy to remember together as they share the same word for itchy and a somewhat similar meaning.
- 비밀을 말하고 싶어서 입이 근질근질 하다. (I just want to tell everyone this secret!)
#10 그림의 떡
- Literal: Rice cake in a picture
- Meaning: A pipe dream
This one is easy to understand. If something is described as rice cake in a picture, it means that it’s a pipe dream, something that you can’t actually have.
As you progress more with Korean, you’ll notice that rice cake comes up quite often. It holds a similar meaning to “bread and butter” in English.
- 포르쉐 차는 나에게 그림의 떡 이다 (The thought of buying a Porche is my pipe dream.)
#11 가재는 게 편이다
- Literal: The lobster and the crab are friends
- Meaning: Birds of a feather flock together
The lobster and the crab are similar, so they are friends. Another simple, useful idiom for you to add to your Korean repertoire!
- 가재는 게 편이라고 영국은 미국 편을 든다 (England and America are allies like the lobster and the crab.)
#12 눈 코 뜰새 없다
- Literal: Can’t open your eyes or ears
- Meaning: Rushed off your feet
You’re so busy you don’t have the time to look or listen to anything. It can be paired with the word for busy, or just used alone.
- 마감때는 눈 코 뜰새 없이 바쁘다 (I’m so busy because the deadline is so close.)
# 13 식은 죽 먹기
- Literal: Like eating porridge
- Meaning: Easy as pie/piece of cake
Porridge is soft and easy to eat. If something is like eating porridge, it just means that it is really easy to do.
- 그 게임은 식은 죽 먹기다 (That game is too easy.)
# 14 눈이 뒤집히다
- Literal: Eyes facing backward
- Meaning: Seeing red
This means that you’re so angry that you’re seeing red, or you can’t think. It is interesting that like English, the idiom is related to sight, even though it’s different in its execution.
- 남자친구가 한 눈을 팔아서 나는 눈이 뒤집혔다 (I can’t believe he cheated, I’m so angry!)
# 15 한눈 팔다
- Literal: Sell one eye
- Meaning: Cheat on a spouse
If someone sells one of their eyes, it means they’ve been unfaithful in a relationship..
- 남자친구가 한 눈 팔아서 나는 눈이 뒤집혔다 (I can’t believe he cheated, I’m so angry!)
# 16 발등에 불이 떨어지다
- Literal: Fire coming off your feet
- Meaning: Rushed off your feet
If someone has fire coming off their feet, it means they are moving quickly.
- 마감이 코 앞이라 발등에 불이 떨어졌다 (The deadline is so soon I’m so busy!)
# 17 가슴에 못을 박다
- Literal: To hammer a nail into the heard
- Meaning: Break someone’s heart
If you drive a nail into someone’s heart, it means that you hurt them emotionally.
- 빈센트의 헤어지자는 말은 내 가슴에 못을 박았다 (He said he wanted to break up with me and it broke my heart.)
# 18 사람은 분수를 알아야 한다
- Literal: You need to know your limits
- Meaning: Don’t try to keep up with the Joneses
While it seems a little negative, you’ll see this in subtitles as a translation for not keeping up with the Joneses. So while the direct translation seems a little defeatist, the idiomatic meaning is a little different, more about knowing yourself than not shooting for the stars!
- 사람은 분수를 알아야 한다고 돈이 많다고 귀족이 되지는 않는다 (Just because you have money doesn’t make you royalty.)
#19 얼굴이 두껍다
- Literal: Having a thick face
- Meaning: shameless
If someone has a heavy face, it means they are shameless.
- 빈센트는 바람피고 거짓말하는 걸 보니 얼굴이 두껍다 (Vincent cheats and he lies but he just doesn’t care.)
# 20 그냥 있어
- Literal: Just is (existing)
- Meaning: Doing nothing
If someone asks what you’re doing, and you aren’t really doing anything, you can reply with this. It just means that you’re simply being, or existing, not doing anything.
- 정희 모해? (What are you doing Jeonghee?)
- 그냥 있어! (I’m just sitting around!)
#21 – 눈이 멀다
- Literal: Going blind
- Meaning: to be blinded by something
If you go blind in this way, it means that something is causing you to lose sight of what’s right.
- 욕심에 눈이 멀다 (Going blind with greed.)
#22 – 보는눈 없어
- Literal: To not have eyes for something
- Meaning: Having a bad sense of something
If you don’t have eyes for something, it means you have terrible taste in that thing.
- 빈센트는 나쁜 여자만 계속 만나는 걸 보니 여자 보는 눈이 없다 (He always has such bad relationships, it seems like he doesn’t have a sense for them.)
#23 가슴을 쓸어내리다
- Literal: Rubbing on the chest
- Meaning: Feeling relieved
If you’re experiencing this feeling, it means that you’re feeling relieved.
- 교통사고가 날 뻔했지만 다치지 않아서 가슴을 쓸어내렸다 (I narrowly avoided a car crash and felt so relieved!)
#24 가슴이 두근거리다
- Literal: Having an itchy chest
- Meaning: Feeling anxious
If you have an itchy chest it means that you’re feeling anxious.
- 거짓말을 들킬까봐 가슴이 두근거렸다 (I’m worried they’ll figure out I lied.)
#25 귀에 못이 박히다
- Literal: Having a nail hammered into your ear
- Meaning: Being/feeling nagged
If you feel like you’re having a nail hammered into your ear, it means that you’re feeling harangued or nagged.
- 우유를 반드시 컵에 따라 마시라고 엄마에게 귀에 못이 박히게 들었다! (Mum never shuts up about me using a cup when I drink milk, it’s like a nail in my ear!)
#26 찬물을 끼얹다
- Literal: Throw cold water on it
- Meaning: To spoil the mood
This means to make the atmosphere cold. If someone does this, they’ve ruined the mood.
- 영화를 보는데 엔딩을 말해서 찬물을 끼얹었다 (Right before we saw it, someone spoiled the ending and ruined the mood.)
#27 꼬리를 치다/흔들다
- Literal: Wagging or shaking tail
- Meaning: Flattering/temptation
If you’re doing this, it means that you’re flattering or tempting someone.
- 그 여자는 내 남자친구에게 꼬리를 쳤다 (She’s always flirting with my boyfriend!)
#28 눈이 높다
- Literal: High eyes
- Meaning: High standards
If someone has high eyes, it means that they have very high standards.
- 나는 남자를 보는 눈이 높다 (I’m very picky when it comes to relationships.)
#29 바람을 넣다
- Literal: Blow wind
- Meaning: Motivate
This can be positive or negative. It simply means to motivate someone to do something, which could be good or bad.
- 친구는 계속 새 차를 사라고 나에게 바람을 넣었다 (My friends are always going on at me to buy a new car!)
# 30 배가 아프다
- Literal: Painful stomach
- Meaning: Envy
If someone is experiencing this, it means that they are feeling envy. This is contextual, however. If you were experiencing physical pain in your stomach, this is exactly how you would describe it.
- 나보다 좋은 몸매의 여자를 보니 배가 아프다 (I’m jealous of her figure.)
#31 파리 날리다
- Literal: Flies around
- Meaning: A business doing badly
If a business has flies around it, it means that there are no customers, or that it’s doing badly.
- 락다운 때문에 장사가 안되서 가게에 파리가 날린다 (So many businesses are struggling because of the lockdown.)
#32 제 눈에 안경이다
- Literal: Glasses in your eyes
- Meaning: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder
Even trivial things might look good through your glasses.
- 언니는 브래드피트가 엄청 잘생겼다고 하는데 나는 그렇게 생각하지 않았더니. 언니는 제눈에 안경이라더니 라고 말했다 (My sister thinks Brad Pitt is so good looking but I just don’t see it. She says that beauty is in the eye of the beholder!)
#33 작은 고추가 맵다
- Literal: The small pepper is spicy
- Meaning: Good things come in small packages
This one is another fairly simple idiom with plenty of applications.
- 그 남자는 키는 작지만 힘이 아주 세다 (He’s small but he’s really strong.)
#34 김칫국부터 마시지 마
- Literal: Don’t drink the kimchi soup first
- Meaning: Don’t count your chickens before they hatched
This comes from a longer, more old-fashioned idiom. 떡 줄 사람은 생각도 않는데 김칫국부터 마신다. Remember how we said rice cake comes up often in Korean?
Basically, the old idiom was about drinking kimchi soup in anticipation of a rice cake that never comes. Kimchi soup is consumed to avoid choking on that rice cake.
These days, the section about the rice cake is omitted.
- 월급도 아직 안 받았는데 벌써 돈을 다 쓰다니 김칫국부터 마시지마 (I haven’t even been paid this month and I’ve already spent everything.)
#35 똥 묻은 개가 겨 묻은 개 나무란다
- Literal: Dog covered in poo complains at the dog covered in chaff
- Meaning: The pot calling the kettle black
This is more or less identical to the English idiom, although perhaps a little more amusing.
- 똥 묻은 개가 겨 묻은 개 나무란다고 정치인들은 서로 정치를 똑바로 하라고 싸운다 (Politicians sling mud at each other but they’re all the same.)
#36 시작이 반이다
- Literal: The beginning is half
- Meaning: Well begun is half done
This is basically just saying that it’s important to plan and make good decisions.
- 시작이 반이라고, 운전면허를 따기 위해서 학원부터 등록했다 (Well begun is half done. If you want to learn to drive you need to start with lessons.)
#37 가려운 곳을 긁어 주다
- Literal: Giving a scratch to an itchy place
- Meaning: You read my mind and solve the problem
This is used when someone does something for you without you asking them first. If they brought you a cup of tea, just when you needed it, even though you hadn’t said anything.
- 돈이 급하게 필요한데 친구가 돈을 빌려주었다 (They lent me some money right when I needed it.)
#38 돌다리도 두들겨 보고 건너라
- Literal: Check the first stone before you jump
- Meaning: Look before you leap.
This is another fairly self-explanatory idiom, and very similar to the English saying.
- 투자를 하기 전에, 돌다리도 두들겨 보고 건너라고 확인부터 해야지 (Think carefully before you invest money.)
#39 방귀가 잦으면 똥 싸기 쉽다
- Literal: If you keep farting, eventually you’ll soil yourself
- Meaning: Coming events cast their shadows before
As ridiculous as it sounds, we’re assured that this is a real idiom. It is basically an amusing warning not to ignore warning signs.
- 방귀가 잦으면 똥싸기 쉽다더니 자꾸 실수를 하다가 결국 큰 사고를 쳤다 (If you keep making mistakes, you’ll have a big problem.)
#40 꼬리가 길면 잡힌다
- Literal: If your tail is long someone will catch it eventually
- Meaning: If you keep doing something, eventually you’ll get caught
I'm not really aware of a comparable English idiom for this one. It is basically a warning against bad behavior.
- 꼬리가 길면 잡힌다더니 계속 바람피다가 여자친구에게 들켰다 (If you keep cheating, she’s going to figure it out!)
#41 간이 배 밖으로 나오다
- Literal: Liver comes out from the belly
- Meaning: Someone is fearless, perhaps recklessly so
Koreans associate liver with bravery – so someone with a large liver would be considered brave. If someone wears their liver outside their body it means they are fearless. This could be used in a positive or negative capacity.
- 경찰차를 훔치다니 간이 배 밖으로 나왔다 (They stole a police car, how reckless!)
#42 발이 넓다
- Literal: Having wide feet
- Meaning: A very social person/having lots of connections.
If someone has wide feet, it means that they have good connections or a wide circle of friends. If you found out that someone is friends with a celebrity, you might use this to describe them.
- 그는 발이 넓은 사람이다 (He’s very well connected.)
#43 목이 빠지게 기다리다
- Literal: Your neck becoming longer from staring
- Meaning: Watching paint dry
If you’re feeling this, it means that you’re really bored.
- 택배가 도착하기만을 목이 빠지게 기다린다 (I’m so sick of waiting for this delivery.)
#44 미역국을 먹다
- Literal: You ate seaweed soup
- Meaning: To fail a test
Seaweed soup is slippery. Koreans often describe failing a test as “slipping off” the test. So if you say you ate seaweed soup you’re saying you failed, or think you failed, an exam.
- 나는 대학 입학에 합격하지 못하고 미역국을 먹었다 (I failed the university entrance exam.)
#45 손을 씻다
- Literal: Wash your hands
- Meaning: To absolve yourself of something
As we mentioned earlier, Korean as a language functions figuratively/metaphorically in a very similar way to English. If you wash your hands of something, it means the same as that expression in English. You might wash your hands of a situation, or a relationship.
- 그 사람은 이제 도둑질에서 손을 씻을거다 (He was a criminal but he washed his hands of that life.)
#46 발을 뻗다
- Literal: Stretch your legs
- Meaning: To give up/relax
If you give up or stretch your legs, it means you gave up on something and decided to relax instead, or simply finished and relaxed.
- 문제가 해결 됐으니 발 뻗고 잘 수 있겠다 (I solved the problem so I was able to relax.)
#47 방귀 뀐 놈이 성낸다
- Literal: The person who farted is the angriest
- Meaning: Unwilling to admit when you’re wrong
You can use this to describe someone acting angrily because they don’t want to admit that they are wrong.
- 방귀 뀐 놈이 성낸다고 늦게 일어나고서 왜 안깨웠냐고 화낸다 (You woke up late but blamed me for not waking you!)
#48 울며 겨자 먹기
- Literal: Cry and eat wasabi
- Meaning: Rip off the plaster
This is used when you have something difficult to do, or a difficult situation to face. It’s just like ripping off the plaster! You just cry, eat wasabi and get on with it.
- 출근하기 싫은데 울며 겨자먹기로 한다 (I don’t want to go to work but I just get on with it.)
Korean Idioms To Help You Become The Life Of The Party
So that was 49 Korean idioms. I hope you’ll get plenty of use out of them!
They’ll help you to learn the language while also being really useful in a variety of situations.
If you think you have an appropriate idiom for a situation when speaking in Korean, go for it! You’ll stand out as someone who has gone the extra mile with their studies.
And native speakers will always be really happy that someone is trying to learn their language no matter what.
Korean idioms are fantastic because they’re a source of common and unique words for you to learn. And a great way of remembering them too!
So start using Korean idioms to spice up your Korean today! If you want to pick them up easily, immerse yourself in Korean by reading short stories in Korean or by listening to K-pop. As you make daily contact with the language, you'll pick up idioms in no time.