A new business has opened. Several large wreaths stand at the entrance adorned with streaming ribbons with “daebak” (대박) written on them. Similar wreaths stand in front of concert halls and theaters on opening night. People give a thumbs up while exclaiming, “Daebak!” when they see something impressive or spectacular. People yell out the same when doubling over with laughter from a hilarious joke, or when they have won a high stakes round in a card game or the lottery. But what does daebak mean?
As an exclamation, daebak generally means “awesome”. It’s not a direct translation, but it’s the meaning that is conveyed when the word is said. When spoken, the vowels of “dae” are luxuriously stretched out and then briskly clipped by the emphatic “bak”! Mostly used by the younger generation, it is seldom used by people 40 or older. Before it became a common exclamation, daebak was mostly used as an idiom: “대박나다” (daebak nada), with daebak meaning a big hit or success. Not surprisingly, the idiom is generally used to describe success in business or in the entertainment industry.
The etymology of daebak isn’t definitely known. Some say it derives from the traditional “big ship” (大舶), such as a large merchant ship. Not only could you obtain new items and goods from the ship, you could also sell those items and add to your wealth. The big ship was then linked to the thought of success, riches, and profit, and the word settled into the Korean lexicon.
Another theory is less wholesome. In traditional card games (such as Go-Stop, explained in this post), card hands or winnings are commonly referred to as “bak”. “Dae” means “big” so a large windfall would be called “daebak”. Many online card games, gambling establishments, and lottery ticket providers have “daebak” in their name.
There are also those who say the word came from the old folk tale “Heungbu & Nolbu” (흥부와 놀부). Heungbu and Nolbu are brothers. Nolbu the elder brother is greedy, mean, and filthy rich while the younger brother Heungbu is kind, diligent, and extremely poor. One day Heungbu discovers a swallow with a broken leg in his yard and takes care of the bird until it gets better. The swallow repays Heungbu by dropping a gourd seed. The seed grows up into a huge gourd, a “daebak”. (“Bak” is also the word for “gourd” and as mentioned before, “dae” is “big”.) When Heungbu opens the gourd, riches spill out to end his troubles. A sudden change in fortune, a rag-to-riches situation is thus called “daebak”, and the idiom “daebak teojida” (대박 터지다, a big gourd bursts) is said to be derived from this tale.
However, this theory is the least credible, as the jealous older brother Nolbu went out to do the exact same thing as Heungbu by deliberately injuring a swallow and then taking care of it, but when he opened his big gourd, he was met with monsters and demons. (For a more detailed story check out this animation.)
Whatever its origins, daebak is currently being used in its original meaning, as an exclamation, and even as a way of greeting, particularly to wish someone good luck or success. Success for a new business, a new job. Acing an exam, the college entrance exams for example, warrant many daebak wishes. Wishing someone daebak on opening night at the theater would be the equivalent of telling them to “break a leg”. Along with the quintessential wreaths, there is a myriad of goods and items available that convey these well-wishes to the receiver as well.
Because it is associated with good luck, wishing people daebak as New Year’s greetings has also become quite common. This trend is especially notable in advertising and entertainment. Daesung from the K-pop boyband Big Bang even released a trot song called “Daebakiya (대박이야, It’s Daebak)” in 2009, wishing everyone daebak with encouraging lyrics.
Daebak is also used when a situation brings upon great mirth and laughter. When a joke is a big hit. When something is astoundingly funny or hilariously bizarre. In short, daebak is a good thing. It’s awesome, great, incredible, memorable, funny, and happy; it’s an exclamation of observation, sharing of emotion, a compliment. Although it’s rare to hear it being spoken in very formal settings, because words live alongside its generation and evolves with it, the word daebak will probably be around for quite a long while.
So the next time a Korean friend tells you a funny or fabulous story that makes you howl with laughter or makes your jaw drop, try replying with an emphatic, “Daebak!” You’ll probably hear the same in return.