Yeobo~ Jagi~ Korean terms of endearment

Written by on July 23, 2012 in Lifestyle

What do you call your husband or wife, life partner? “Honey”? “Darling”? “Dear”? Or just their names?
In Korea, it’s rare to be called by your first name only, especially when you’re an adult. Older family members and same age friends do, otherwise there would always be something attached to it; either a title or a word that defines your relationship to the person calling you. Usually, the need for the name itself is naught and in many cases, the title is used alone. Older sisters are “older sister (either unni or nuna) and older brothers are “older brother” (either oppa or hyeong). Teachers are simply called “teacher”; professors, “professor”; directors, “director”; so on and so forth.
That also applies to family, the most personal of institutions. We already explained about Korean family terms in a previous post but didn’t quite tackle the relationship between husband and wife. Although it is an endearing bond, “terms of endearment” isn’t really that accurate in describing what I’m about to explain. This isn’t about pet names or nicknames lovers bestow on each other while making googly eyes; those can get as creative as you want and aren’t quite Korea-specific, but a matter-of-fact account on what Korean husbands and wives call each other.

16th century letter from a wife to her husband

In the olden days, at least in the Joseon Dynasty, it was quite complicated. Firstly, there was hardly occasion for a wife to “call” her husband out loud. Secondly, as it is today, calling someone directly and mentioning them to someone else – different names are used.
Although women seemed to be oppressed in the Joseon Dynasty from today’s perspective (mostly concerning gender roles in society), there was a lot of mutual respect between husband and wife during that era. Unlike today, the formal tone (존댓말) was commonly used.
Recent discoveries of personal letters have revealed much about the husband-wife relationship in Joseon. Apparently, janae (자내) was used by both husband and wife to call each other. Janae has evolved to janeh (자네) in the modern day, and is used mainly by the elderly to call someone of inferior status while maintaining formality: a mother talking to her son-in-law, a high level executive talking to the office temp.

15th century portrait of scholar Ha Yeon and his wife

Wives would also call their husbands yeonggam (영감), daegam (대감), or naeuri (나으리); unlike janae, which wasn’t well known until recently, these are familiar terms and can be commonly heard in TV period dramas.
Booin (부인) is also a familiar term; it literally means “wife”. Husbands would call their wives booin or manura (마누라), another word which also makes its appearance in old letters. Ironically, this respectful term of endearment is considered somewhat demeaning in the current age; not many wives enjoy being called manura by their husbands.
Royalty is an exception. The King and Queen were called by the titles jeonha (전하) or mahma (마마) and these same titles were used in their personal lives as well, although some scholars speculate that Kings would have used booin to their queens.
Booin has such a serious mood attached to it, though. Same goes for yeonggam, which nowadays is sometimes used to mean “old man”. Young married couples, no matter what the century, would have a sense of romantic playfulness, would they not?
Seobangnim (서방님) is the respectful expression of seobang (서방) which means husband. Saeksi (색시) – which amusingly sounds like the English word “sexy” – means a young maiden or bride. Newlyweds used to call each other thus, although these days seobang is usually used to call the son-in-law by attaching his family name to it: Lee seobang, Kim seobang, for example.

Oppa is forever?

These days, couples usually carry on the terms of endearment they used while courting. Unfortunately, this means many Korean women still call their husbands “oppa” (older brother), since it’s still the norm for women to marry older men. This custom of calling husbands oppa becomes quite confusing when the woman in question has an actual older brother or has kids. Not surprisingly, the older generation disapproves of this practice, but it doesn’t seem to be going away. There’s even a joke saying if you call someone oppa who is not your actual oppa for a long time, he will become appa (아빠, daddy), i.e. the father of your kids.
Talking of kids, the husband-wife dynamic shifts greatly once kids arrive on the scene. Since most Korean terms used when calling one another defines the relationship; it is no longer just husband and wife, but now a family. Many husbands and wives lose their first names when their first-born arrives, they become So-and-so’s dad or So-and-so’s mom. For example, if your child is named Gildong, you would be called “Gildong appa“ or “Gildong abeoji”, “Gildong umma” or “Gildong eomeoni”. This may seem very odd for those from different cultures, but I do not know many of the names of the spouses of friends, especially if I met those friends after they had kids. It’s not only an appellation used by others, either; there are many husbands and wives who call each other this way.

Jagiya~ is a talk show featuring real life celebrity couples

I haven’t mentioned the most obvious, though: yeobo (여보), jagi (자기), and dangshin (당신). Yeobo has been used for ages, although in olden times it wasn’t necessarily used to call husband or wife; it was used to mean “look here” or “hey, you” in a respectful way. The greeting “Yeoboseyo?” (여보세요) comes from this word, which is now used to mean “hello” (on the phone) or to call someone from afar (although nowadays this has been replaced with “jeogiyo” 저기요).
Since yeobo has been used for such a long time, it is linked to the older generation and newlyweds are rather shy in making the transit to call each other thus. Calling each other yeobo means you have been married for a while, that you have “really” acknowledged the fact that you’re married. It would probably be the equivalent of the English “dear”.
Jagi, usually used with –ya attached, is a fairly recent development. The original meaning of jagi is “self” or “oneself”. Speculation: since husband and wife are of “one heart, same body” (일심동체), calling your other half “self” makes perfect sense. No one can truly pinpoint when this became common use, but for the most of the under-40s couples, this is universal. And it’s not only for the married, either. Unlike yeobo, which has strong connotations of marriage to it, jagi is used by all in romantic relationships, married or not. Feels more like a “honey” or a “darling”.
[N.B. In some circles, like in the field of the fashion or showbiz, it is also used as an alternative to neo () – the casual tone “you” which is never, ever used to someone senior – when addressing a junior. There are absolutely no romantic implications whatsoever. This can cause misunderstandings after leaving that field, of course, but it’s a hard habit to break.]
Dangshin is also commonly used, and among the three, the most used in poetry and song lyrics. Many K-pop songs these days use the casual tone and not the respectful tone in their lyrics, so you will hear more “neo” than “dangshin”, but songs using the respectful tone would always use dangshin to refer to “you”. It is a complementary appellation to yeobo, as the usage is a bit different.
Because first names aren’t frequently used in Korean society, different appellations are used when calling someone directly and referring to them. Although “Gildong’s dad” and “Gildong’s mom” can be used for all occasions, you don’t call your husband or wife as “yeobo” or “jagi” when talking about them to someone else.
Husbands are generally called nampyeon (남편), literally husband; bakkat yangban (바깥양반), “the man outside”; geu ee (그이), “that (dear) person”. Wives are usually referred to as anae (아내), literally wife; ahn saram (안사람) or jip saram (집사람), “person inside” or “house person” – feminists rage about this one, obviously; and most recently, waipeu (와이프), the Konglish pronunciation of the English “wife”. Newlyweds sometimes call their husbands shillang (신랑, groom) and their wives saeksi (색시, bride).
When talking about another person’s husband or wife, the safest would be the “Gildong’s mom” or “Gildong’s dad” strategy, but if you don’t know their kids’ names, adding boon (분) to nampyeon or anae is reliably polite. If you’re not sure what to call them, it wouldn’t hurt to ask, either.

And in the meantime, if anyone knows how to break the “calling all juniors jagi” habit, please let me know.

About the Author

Suzy Chung

Multilingual editor, writer, and translator. Coffee addict, bookworm, art junkie, foodie, oenophile, and a billion other things. I tend to talk a lot. @suzyinseoul