Shall We Selca? Korean Camera Slang

Written by on October 29, 2013 in Lifestyle

Moving to South Korea in 2010, I noticed that virtually everyone had a cell phone, even young children and the elderly, and something that caught me off-guard was how these cell phones were used. I would often see Koreans in public holding their phone in front of their face, staring into the screen and fixing their hair. At first, I thought that they were just looking at their reflection in the screen, but later I realized they were using the reverse camera as a virtual mirror, a trend that’s become even more widespread since the spread of smart phone culture. Later I would notice other funny camera habits that amuse me almost every time I see them taking place.

My co-worker. Hard at work or hardly working?

My co-worker. Hard at work or hardly working?

One such habit is selca. Selca (셀카) gets its name from the shortened combination of the words ‘self’ (셀, sel) and ‘camera’ (카, ka) and it is a picture that you take of yourself. Selca can refer to both the act of capturing the picture and the resulting picture itself, and the picture is also sometimes referred to as a sel-pic (셀픽), from the shortened ‘self picture’. At any rate, it’s a popular past-time, and nobody does selca better than Koreans.

Take for example selca noli (셀카놀이, also sometimes written selca nori). Selca noli is the act of amusing one’s self by taking photos of one’s self, and the name translates to ‘selca play.’ Often people engage in selca noli when they’re waiting around for friends or to document a moment. Basically it’s a private photo-shoot held in a public forum… if you can wrap your head around that. Although both men and women do it, it’s especially popular with young women in their teens and twenties and with couples. Although we probably all take photos of ourselves from time to time, selca noli can sometimes become all-consuming, so much so that I doubt the picture-snapping person even remembers the event they’re trying to document! I saw some women on the beach who spent an entire day taking photos of themselves “having fun” on the beach, if by fun, they meant staring at their phones and shooting the same picture over and over! Or when I saw three women who spent at least an hour doing selca noli at a baseball game. Couples are equally guilty as they snap photos of themselves together in a café until their coffee has gone cold. Truly a moment worth remembering.

02 Selca Baseball

So… enjoying the baseball game? Who’s winning anyway?

Of course, you can’t snap just any pic. You must look your best if you wish to do selca properly, leading to the phenomenon known as eoljjang (얼짱), literally meaning ‘best face’. The name ‘eoljjang’ comes from the Korean words eol, a short form of eolgul (얼굴) meaning ‘face’, and jjang (짱), which is slang for ‘best’. There are websites where you can upload your photo and have others rate your eoljjang, such as the now-defunct Korean smart phone app Face World Match, where users from around the world vie for the title of ‘Best Face’. Naturally, the winners were often Korean, though I suspect it may be because they were the only ones who had any idea what was going on there. Wait a minute, what is this? What’s going on here? Where am I?

Perhaps you too could win eoljjang competitions if you’re lucky enough to be born with kaembbal (캠빨) or sajinbbal (사진빨), the natural ability to look attractive in pictures, better known in English as ‘photogenic’. Kaembbal comes from ‘camera’ (캠, kaem) and bbal (빨), a suffix meaning, among other things, ‘force’. Put the words together and you get ‘camera force’, a word which perfectly describes the feeling of trying to keep one’s eyes open for a photo. Sajinbbal has the same suffix added to the end of the word sajin (사진), or photo. The next time I take a photo I may tell my subjects, “May the force be with you” before I snap the pic, and then spend the next ten minutes laughing at my cleverness. Or ignoring their bewildered stares, not sure yet.

04 Selca Noli

Selca can be perplexing. For example, if your friend is right there, the why are you doing selca?!

Speaking of acting bewildered in front of a camera, that brings me to our next bit of slang, mollae camera (몰래카메라) or ‘hidden camera’. Known as molca (몰카) for short, hidden camera gags are very popular. MBC’s variety show Ilbam (일밤, Sunday Night) perfected the art with their Hidden Camera skit, surprising Korean celebrities and recording their reaction, often to comical effect. The literal translation of mollae is ‘don’t know’ as in, “I don’t know why candid camera gags are so popular either.”

That brings us to the last piece of perplexing camera slang, gwiyomi (귀요미). It comes from the adjective ‘gwiyeo-un’ (귀여운) meaning ‘cute’ and is combined with the personifying suffix ‘mi’ (미) to create a slang term which means ‘a cute person’. Gwiyomi is also a movement of cuteness spreading throughout photos nationwide. If you’ve ever seen a Korean person posing for a photo with an exaggerated wink or two fingers held up in a little V for ‘victory’, then you’ve witnessed gwiyomi, learned from a tender age and practically unavoidable after even just a short stay on the peninsula. I started doing it because I thought it was fun and now find I can’t stop. I need an intervention! Right after I puff my cheeks out for this next photo, that is. Selca! *Shutter snap*

05 Gwiyomi

Gwiyomi is even immortalized in street art. This kid’s got it.

That’s everything you need to know about Korean camera slang. Have I missed any of your favourite expressions? Let me know in the comments! Until next time, happy photo-snapping and may “the force” be with you! (^.^)V

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About the Author

Jessica Steele

Jessica Steele is a Canadian expat teaching, writing, and adventuring in Busan, South Korea. She has lived in Korea for nearly four years, but her travels aren’t finished yet. Her favourite things in Korea are the festivals, neon lights, and of course, kimchi.