Korean Language Blog

Four-Character Idioms That Will Improve the Level of Korean Posted by on Aug 27, 2021 in Culture, Grammar, History, Idioms, Korean Language, Vocabulary

Before 한글 (Hangul: Korean alphabets) was invented, Koreans used Chinese characters. In fact, only 양반 (yang-bahn: higher-class nobles) were allowed to write and read in Chinese. Therefore, the gap between the nobility and 백성 (baek-sung: the ordinary people) was too big to overcome. 

세종대왕 (se-jong-dae-wang: King Sejong) in Chosun Dynasty had a desire to enlighten 백성 because he strongly believed that even the ordinary people could live better lives if they could be literate. Thus, he invented our own characters and proclaimed them to the public in 1446. 


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Korean is a completely different language from Chinese, but a lot of Korean words are derived from 한문 (han-moon: Chinese characters). It reminds me that languages are often affected by historical and regional reasons. The more I speak English as a second language, the more I discover the importance of studying foreign languages that are embedded in English, such as German or French. 


고사성어 (goh-sah-sung-uh: idiom originated from an ancient event) is one of the Chinese derived words in Korean. They are usually made up of four Chinese characters. They imply valuable lessons in life or originated from old stories. You might hear similar terms such as 한자성어 (han-jah-sung-uh: Chinese character idioms), 사자성어 (sah-jah-sung-uh: four-letter idioms) and 성어 (sung-uh: an idiom, it often indicates the two-letter idioms), but they are all synonyms of 고사성어. 

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Today, I will introduce you to the most commonly used 고사성어 in modern Korean. The purpose of learning 한자성어 is to use them in related situations. Thus, it is important to understand the meaning of each 성어 rather than memorize them without associating cases. 


  • 고진감래 (goh-jin-gahm-rae)

This is literally translated as “sweetness comes after bitterness.” In English, we would say, ‘good things will come after hard work’.


  • 전화위복 (jeon-hwa-we-bok)

Literally, this means “disaster turns into a good fortune.” One of the similar English proverbs could be ”blessings in disguise. 


  • 감언이설 (gahm-un-ee-sul)

It is literally translated as “sweet talk is used to cajole someone only for a speaker’s benefit.” 


  • 개과천선 (gae-gwha-chun-sun)

This is literally translated as “a bad man suddenly becomes a good man.” One of the similar English proverbs could be such as ‘turning over a new leaf’. 

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  • 견물생심 (gyun-mool-sang-sim)

It is literally translated as “when you see an object, a thought of possessing the object arouses.” In English we might say ‘seeing is wanting’. 


  • 과유불급 (gwha-yoo-bool-guep)

It is literally translated that excessiveness is the same as bad as shortage. One of the similar English proverbs could ”too much is as bad as too little.  


  • 금상첨화 (guem-sang-chum-hwa)

It means adding flowers to embroidery. It is similar to the phrase “the icing on the cake.”


  • 온고지신 (on-goh-ji-sin)

It is translated as “review the old in order to learn new things.” One of the similar English proverbs could be such as ‘taking a leaf out of a wise man’s book’.


  • 동분서주 (dong-boon-suh-joo)

Literally: “someone runs from the east to the west.” It describes someone in hectic situations. In English, we might say “running around like a chicken with its head cut off.”


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  • 금의환향 (geum-eui-hwan-hyang)

It is literally translated that someone with silk clothes comes back to their hometown. Someone with silk clothes represents a person with big success. Such a phrase in English would be returning home in glory.


  • 다다익선 (dah-dah-ik-sun)

It is translated that the more is better. Such a phrase in English would be ”the more the merrier.”


  • 일석이조 (il-suk-ee-joh)

It is translated as catching two birds with one stone. We have the exact one in English: two birds with one stone!

The Korean education system puts emphasis on studying 고사성어 at a young age because these four-character idioms are frequently used in 문어체 (moon-uh-che: written style) as well as 구어체 (goo-uh-che: colloquial style). If you want to advance your level in Korean, I advise you to take some time to study 고사성어.

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About the Author: Flying Oyster

Hi, I was born and raised in Seoul, S. Korea. I have lived in Seattle for a while and I am traveling the world with my husband since 2016. It is my honor to share Korean culture with you all. Don't be shy to share your thoughts and comments! :) Talk to you soon. H.J.