Foreign Loanwords in Korean

Written by on September 17, 2013 in Lifestyle

Like any other language, Korean has collected a lot of loanwords over the centuries. It doesn’t take long after learning a bit of Korean to start noticing the high number of foreign words all around you. You’ve probably heard all sorts of English loanwords, so I was more interested to skip by and look at some of the Korean words from other languages.

The origins of these loanwords are arranged chronologically, and you’ll see the correlation between age of the loanword and the complexity of the term, starting with basic Chinese numbering and going all the way to an Italian word for a specific type of cultural event.


It’s not surprising the Korean language has many loanwords from Chinese, seeing as how the language essentially used Chinese characters for over a millennium. Around 60 percent of the Korean vocabulary has Chinese origins, although most of them came over to Korean long ago and may not necessarily be recognised as Chinese anymore, the same way an English speaker might forget that “cafe” is originally French and “philosophy” is ancient Greek for “love of wisdom.” Also, many so-called Chinese words may have been developed long ago by Koreans using Chinese characters, predating the actual Korean language (would they still be considered loanwords in that case?).

Despite the big overlap, Korean and Chinese pronunciations are vastly different, so being fluent in Korean wouldn’t be a great help for speaking to Chinese people.

Here is a small sample of some of the many Korean words with detectable Chinese origins:

Numbers: 일, 이, 삼, 사, 오, 육, 칠, 팔, 구, 십 (il, i, sam, sa, oh, yook, chil, pal, gu, ship) -There is also a pure Korean number system which is a lot harder to learn.

School: 학교 (hakgyo) -The Korean word for school is based on the Hanja characters 學校, whereas the modern Chinese word is 学校. The second syllable is identical, but the first is slightly modified.

Tofu: 두부 (dubu) -In Korean Hanja and Chinese, this word is 豆腐. A basic word that hasn’t been modified in either culture in centuries.

Letter: 편지 (pyeonji) -The two Hanja spellings of this one, 片紙 and 便紙, don’t match with the current Chinese word for letter, 信, which means this word was likely constructed in Korean using Chinese building blocks.

Tissue: 휴지 (hyuji) -Note that the 지 in both of those words comes from the character 紙 for paper. One reason why studying Hanja really helps make sense of Korean words.



Korea and Japan also being neighbours, there’s been a lot of sharing of words. Not surprisingly, Korean picked up many Japanese words under Japanese occupation (1910-1945), a time when both countries were modernising and establishing connections with many foreign countries for the first time, and there were many new concepts that didn’t yet have a name in either language. In many cases, Korean borrowed words from Japanese, even many second-hand loanwords which had already originated from Europe. But we’ll talk about those later.

Like with Chinese loanwords, the pronunciation of Japanese loanwords in Korean differs from the original. And to make things even more confusing, Japan has a high number of Chinese loanwords too, so many Korean words from Japan may actually be Chinese in origin, or crafted by Japanese people using Chinese literacy.

At times, there have been attempts to remove Japanese loanwords from Korean, but many remain. As well, older Koreans are more likely to use Japanese words than younger generations.

Cheers: 건배 (geonbae)

Spa: 온천 (oncheon)

Bag: 가방 (gabang)

Nail clippers: 스메기리 (seumaegiri) -I’ve seen numerous spellings of this, including double ㅅ and even a ㅊ. It’s been replaced by a pure Korean word, 손톱깎이 (sontopkkakki).

Zipper: 자크 (jakeu) -This word has basically been replaced with 지퍼 (jipeo), a Hangeul version of the English word. Using many Japanese loanwords such as this one would sound very old-fashioned.

Smartly dressed: 간지 (ganji) -This one is hard to define, but I’m told that it’s an exceptional Japanese loanword that crossed over to Korea and became popular relatively recently. This is not your Korean grandmother’s Japanese slang.

Mechanical pencil: 샤프 (shyapeu) -This one always confuses me, because in English a Sharpie is a type of marker. Apparently Sharp was a Japanese company that made mechanical pencils. I’m actually a little surprised that these entered the English language as the awkward “mechanical pencil” now that I think about it.

T-shirt: 와이셔츠/Y셔츠 (Y-shyeocheu) -This one always bothered me, not because T-shirt becomes Y-shirt but more because “shirt” sounds plural in Korean, yet pants (바지) is distinctively singular. Apparently this comes from the Japanese loanword for “white shirt” with the ending t in white dropped because of the quirks of Japanese.

Flip-flops: 조리 (jori) -I think this one has also been changed into an English loanword.

Stapler: 호치키스 (hochikiseu) -When staplers were first imported to Japan, there was no name for them in the local language, so the Japanese just named the new invention after the company manufacturing them: Hotchkiss.

I guess if I'd never seen a stapler before, I'd assume that's the name for it.

I guess if I’d never seen a stapler before, I’d assume that’s the name for it.

Also, more interestingly, there are claims that some words in Japanese are loanwords originally borrowed from Korean, though I’m really not able to speak to their veracity.


Korean has received many loanwords from German, though most of these come by way of Japanese with their own quirks of pronunciation programmed in. Japan was close with Germany during its Meiji era, receiving many loanwords especially related to western medicine and technology, which were in turn passed to Korean.

Hof: 호프 (hopeu) -The most ubiquitous German loanword, this one most likely comes from the German word hofbrauhaus.

Part-time job: 아르바이트 (areubaiteu) -This is one of the best-known non-English European loanwords, coming from the more general German word for “work.” More recently Koreans have been abbreviating it to 알바, or “alba.” Incidentally, apparently the Japanese shorten this the opposite way, down to “baito.”

Jessica Alba is probably very confused by all the "alba" websites in Korean.

Jessica Alba is probably very confused by all thealbawebsites in Korean.

Cast: 깁스 (gipseu) -A strange one, the Korean word for a cast you’d wear on a broken bone comes from gips, which may be an abbreviation of gypsum, the material used to make the cast. I’m not sure at which stage this was formed though, whether in Germany or Japan.

Collagen: 콜라겐 (collagen)

Allergy: 알레르기 (allaereugi) -I always wondered why Koreans pronounced the g in some obvious loanwords like a g rather than a j as we do it in English. It turns out it’s because these words which resemble the English equivalents are actually cognates from German.

Radio: 라디오 (radio, with a short a rather than the ray sound in English)

Herpes: 헤르페스 (hereupeseu) -Psy, take note.

Also, more interestingly, there are claims that some words in Japanese are loanwords originally borrowed from Korean, though I’m really not skilled enough to know how much of this could be true.



Most of the French loanwords seem to have followed German over in the same era, taking the detour through Japan first. Interestingly, they all seem to be more rooted in leisure and recreation, though I can’t imagine why.

Restaurant: 레스토랑 (restorang)

Vacation: 바캉스 (bacangseu)

Boarding house: 펜션 (pension) -This is a confusing word to English-speakers. It sounds English, and is a word in English with a completely different meaning, but it’s not English.

Clown: 피에로 (pierro) -This word originally comes from a French word for a particular type of pantomime clown character.

Even without colour, they're still terrifying.

Even without colour, they’re still terrifying.


Apparently the first westerners to ever visit Korea were Portuguese. The first European in Korea ever may have been a shipwreck survivor, and it seems highly likely there were Portuguese mercenaries fighting on the Chinese side during the Imjin War, and some may have been in Yi Sun-shin’s legendary fleet. Presumably somewhere along the line, they started trading food, and some novel food products received Portuguese names. I’m probably totally wrong.

Bell pepper: 피망 (pimang) -According to this page, European chili was introduced to Korea around/after the Imjin War of 1592, so maybe that’s when bell peppers reached Korea too?

Bread: 빵 (bbang)


If French is all leisure and Portuguese is all food, then what’s Russian going to be? Actually, this is a bit weird. I had to ask my friend who gave the first two of these to me whether he was giving me North Korean words.

Gathering place: 아지트 (ajiteu) -I don’t think there’s an equivalent in English, but agitpunkt was a type of Soviet propaganda center. Somehow the word caught on in Korean, where it means more of a gathering place, and there seem to be a few cafes and music venues bearing the name.

Partisan: 빨치산 (ppalchisan) -Sounding quite close to the English word, it’s interesting that Koreans would have used a Russian word for this concept.

Intelligentsia: 인텔리 (intelli) -This word describes an intellectual social class that was a big deal in the 19th century. It came into Korea in the context of higher education, something this country is kind of known for now.


I found a single Italian word in Korean, and it seems to be popular on

Biennale: 비엔날레 -The word is obviously related to biennial, but while that’s an adjective, biennale is a noun, an actual name for a particular type of exhibition that happens every two years.

Anyway, that’s all for now. I of course went easy on the Chinese and Japanese loanwords, and there are similarly too many English loanwords out there. What other Korean loanwords do you know of from other languages? Also, does anyone know what language 오토바이 (otobai) is from? I’ll look forward to your answers in the Korea Blog comments section below.

About the Author

Jon Dunbar

Jon Dunbar is a former editor and staff writer for His first visit to Korea was in summer 1996 when he was a teenager, and he returned permanently in December 2003. He is involved in the Korean underground music scene and has supported local musicians through writing, photography, and occasionally planning events. He has been blogging for more than a decade, mainly on music, urban exploration, and his cats