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A Word by Any Other Meaning: Konglish
by Jeffrey Miller

The English language by its very hybrid nature is delightfully peppered (not to mention seasoned) with hundreds of words that have been borrowed from other languages. From ketchup and yoghurt (Turkey) to sushi (Japanese) and taekwondo (Korean) these words have formed the unique tapestry of the English language.

On the other hand, what happens when another language borrows words from English and tries to incorporate them into that language without regard to syntax, grammar, or even pronunciation? The result can often be a humorous linguistic concoction of English usage.

What is Konglish?

In Korea, the mixture of Korean and English words to form words independent to the base of the Korean language but originating from English (in some cases from other European languages) is known as Konglish. Through a direct absorption of these loan words into the Korean language, these words have been become institutionalized into the language. While this combination of Korean and English or Koreans' interpretation of English is not necessarily wrong, these Konglish words or phrases are widely used and accepted in Korea.

Konglish can be broken down into four types: (1) words whose meanings have been altered; (2) words that have been fabricated to mean something entirely different from the borrowed word or phrase; (3) words in which the pronunciation has changed; (4) and words or phrases which have been abbreviated. Konglish also incorporates 'pseudo loan-words': English terms that are used by Koreans but only after making a direct translation from Korean to English. One of the more obvious examples is the word Konglish, which is formed by taking the initial syllable of Korean (Ko), removing the 'E' of English and then combining the remaining parts of the two words.


English words with a different meaning

One of the more harmless uses of Konglish involves words with 'false cognates'. Take for example the word dessert. In English, this word could be defined as 'an after dinner treat', but in Korea, the term dessert is an example of a word in which the meaning has been altered slightly. While it is still served after a meal, it refers to either a cup of coffee, tea, or even a soft drink. In some instances, the word service meaning 'free of charge' or 'on the house' is substituted for 'dessert' with the same connotation. Service is also used at a Korean bank when requesting a cash advance with a credit card. Even Konglish can be conjugated to have several different meanings!

Other examples of words with altered definitions include sharp (mechanical pencil), cider (a soft drink similar to 7 Up), gargle (mouthwash) and meeting (blind date).


Brand names

Sometimes a trademark or brand name becomes twisted into Konglish. If you go to a department store looking for an overcoat or trench coat, all you have to do is tell the clerk that you want a Burberry the trademark of a long, light waterproof coat. Or, if you are hungry and want some yoghurt, you had better ask for Yoplait, which is another example of a brand name that is used out of context as a noun in Korea. Of course, native English users fare no better when it comes to using the brand name Xerox to refer to a photocopy or even the action of making a copy!


Altered phrases

One of the more intriguing uses of Konglish involves words which exist in English, but the phrases which are used in Korea are completely different. A popular expression used by students when they go out for dinner or coffee with their teacher is the phrase Dutch pay, which is taken from the English expression Dutch treat. Once, while accompanying students on an out class, another Konglish term used to describe an outing outside of the classroom usually to a coffee shop or restaurant, one of my students came up with a variation on the theme: Let's have the Dutch pay. I looked around to see if there was anyone from Holland in the coffee shop.

Other examples of these 'fabricated words' include cash corner (ATM), oil bank (gas station), hand phone (mobile phone), light Coke (diet Coke) and one of my all time favourites, MacGyver knife (swiss army knife). The name of the main character in a popular American TV show that was being shown in Korea when I came here, MacGyver was known for his ingenious escapades with his trusty swiss army knife.



Sometimes the pronunciation of certain words is also considered to be a variation of Konglish. For example, the word margarine is pronounced 'ma·ga·rin' and pizza is pronounced 'pi·ja'. Although these pronunciation problems can be readily fixed in the English classroom, they still pose a Konglish conundrum outside.



Finally, there are numerous Konglish words and phrases which have been abbreviated from their correct English forms. Some of these words include air con (air conditioner), apart (apartment building), classic (classical music) and remote con (remote control).


Foreigner in distress

While English teachers can sort out Konglish in the classroom, for the unsuspecting foreigner though, Konglish can pose some unique and even humorous problems. When I arrived in Korea in 1990 to teach English, my luggage was unfortunately lost. Faced with the dire prospect of having to wear the same clothes when I started teaching two days after I arrived, I was forced to buy everything from trousers and shirts to underwear.

Despite my limited Korean, finding trousers and shirts was not a problem, but when it came to the underwear, I was in for a big surprise! In Korea men's and women's underwear are both referred to as panties. Although I pleaded with the female clerk that I wanted underwear, when she started to pull out the men's panties, with brand names like Jockey and a Korean brand BYC, I managed to dodge this Konglish bullet.


Konglish in the classroom

Fortunately, in many circumstances, Konglish can be corrected in the English classroom if the usage by students has not been fossilized. Perhaps one day someone can compile a list of Konglish to understand better how it is widely used and ways that it can be corrected. While Konglish might be the bane of English teachers who are on the frontlines of language teaching in Korea, it is, like it or not, a unique cultural-linguistic phenomenon.