Korean Proverbs – Pieces of advice about life

Looking for inspiration from some Korean Proverbs? You’ve come to the right place!

A girl reading a book with a South Korean flag

Do you want to take these along with you? We put the 20 most famous proverbs from this page and their explanations in a downloadable PDF that you can take on the go:

“Proverb” in Korean

Before we head on to the list of Korean proverbs, you might be wondering how to say “proverbs” in Korean. There are three ways to say “proverbs” in the Korean language, and these are 속담 (sokdam), 격언 (gyeogeon), 금언 (geumeon).

Korean Proverbs

Ancestors have passed down their wisdom in Korea for centuries through their traditional Korean proverbs and sayings.

Along with beliefs, practices, and traditions, these Korean quotes are already part of Korean culture. Not only do they contain wisdom, but it’s a fun way to get immersed in Korean culture as well. You may even hear them in your favorite Korean films, dramas, or songs.

Below is the list of proverbs, along with the meanings and translations. Click on the blue text next to the yellow speaker icon to hear the pronunciation. Under each of the proverbs, we give the literal meaning and the English translation. We explain the meaning along with examples of situations where you might want to use them. Sometimes the literal English translation of the proverbs isn’t clear, so that’s why we also explain what it means so you can easily understand.

In cases where there is a similar expression in English, you’ll see that we’ve translated it into its Western equivalent. The literal English translations are also included, so you can also use them in your Korean study.

We also give the proverbs in the 한글 (Hangeul), the Korean alphabet. It’s best to know how to read the Korean alphabet before diving into Korean phrases like these. If you want to learn Korean, learning the alphabet is the first step. It’s super easy to learn, so give it a try!

1. 제 눈에 안경이다 (je nune angyeongida)

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Meaning: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

Literal Translation: Glasses in my eyes

SS Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

When to use it: You might use this Korean proverb when you have a friend that sees someone else as attractive, but you disagree.

Do you see the beauty in something/someone that is not traditionally attractive and others can’t see it? Use this Korean proverb to suggest that the glasses we use to see with are all different.

2. 꿩 먹고 알 먹는다 (kkwong meokgo al meongneunda)

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Meaning: Kill two birds with one stone

Literal Translation: If you eat a pheasant, you also eat the egg

Kill 2 birds with 1 stone

When to use it: Use this Korean proverb to describe a situation where you do one action and receive two benefits at the same time. For example, let’s say you have to clean the outside of your house. While cleaning, you also find money on the ground. You got two benefits (clean house and money) from one action.

3. 로마는 하루아침에 이루어진 것이 아니다 (romaneun haruachime irueojin geosi anida)

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Meaning: Rome wasn’t built in a day

Literal Translation: Rome wasn’t made in one morning

SS Rome wasn't built in a day

When to use it: Like in English, this Korean proverb reminds someone that you cannot expect to do important tasks really quickly and that quality work takes time. For example, if you’re working on a project for your department, it’ll take you sleepless nights to get something done. You can also use this proverb for your favorite K-pop idol or group. They trained for years to get the fame they have now.

4. 보기 좋은 떡이 먹기도 좋다 (bogi joeun tteogi meokgido jota)

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Meaning: What looks good tastes good

Literal Translation: Good-looking tteok (rice cake) tastes good

What looks good tastes good

When to use it: When you see something that looks good, it likely will be of good quality. That’s because someone put effort into it to make it have a good appearance.

For example, when a chef makes a dish that looks delicious, and you assume it will be delicious, then you could use this Korean proverb.

5. 과부 설움은 홀아비가 안다 (gwabu seorumeun horabiga anda)

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Meaning: Misery loves company

Literal Translation: A widower knows a widow’s sorrow

SS Misery Loves Company

When to use it: You can use this Korean proverb to express the idea that unhappy people like to express their emotions to others or are comforted by the unhappiness of others. An example could be a student who gets detention and tries to get others in trouble, so they don’t need to serve it alone!

You can also use this proverb for people who love to gossip or use harsh words or language toward others. They find happiness or enjoyment in talking about unfortunate events in other people’s lives.

6. 낮말은 새가 듣고 밤말은 쥐가 듣는다 (nanmareun saega deutgo bammareun jwiga deunneunda)

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Meaning: The walls have ears

Literal Translation: Birds hear the words spoken in the day, and mice hear the words spoken at night

The walls have ears

When to use it: People are social beings, and one culture that we all have is we communicate with each other. And if you know someone who spreads rumors or talks poorly of others, you should step in and say this Korean proverb.

7. 눈에서 멀어지면, 마음에서도 멀어진다 (nuneseo meoreojimyeon, maeumeseodo meoreojinda)

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Meaning: Out of sight, out of mind

Literal Translation: If it becomes distant from your eyes, it also becomes distant from your mind (heart)

Out of sight, out of mind

When to use it: To express the idea that when one cannot see someone or something, it is easy to forget them or forget about that thing, for example, you can use this proverb if you have a book that you kept inside a cabinet that you don’t often open, you’ll eventually forget that you have that book.

People could also use this Korean proverb to describe a couple having trouble in a long-distance relationship. For Koreans, having a long-distance relationship can be very challenging. If they can’t meet each other often, they’ll eventually drift apart.

8. 말을 냇가에 끌고 갈 수는 있어도 억지로 물을 먹일 수는 없다 (mareul naetgae kkeulgo gal suneun isseodo eokjiro mureul meogil suneun eopda) 

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Meaning: You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink

Literal Translation: You can lead a horse and go to a stream, but you can’t make it drink water through its own will

You Can Lead a Horse to water

When to use it: You can use this Korean proverb to express the idea that you can make it easy for someone to do something, but you can’t force them to do it. This proverb may be used by two mothers talking about their sons and how they can’t get them to do homework. 

9. 백지장도 맞들면 낫다 (baekjijangdo matdeulmyeon natda)

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Meaning: Two heads are better than one

Literal Translation:  If you lift it together, it’s better – even if it’s a sheet of paper

Two Heads are Better than One

When to use it: This is a great Korean proverb to express the idea that it is always best to work together on a task, no matter how easy it may seem. For example, a Korean student could use this expression when they meet a study partner. You can best use this proverb among people working for a company. It can be a good culture to adopt when working on small or big projects.

10. 궁하면 통한다 (gunghamyeon tonghanda)

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Meaning: There is always a way out

Literal Translation: If you are hard up for something, it will open up

there is always a way out

When to use it: In the Korean language, this proverb is often used to explain motivations for coming up with an innovative solution to a problem, like a man who starts selling his paintings on the street after he loses his job and replaces his income.

11. 뜻이 있는 곳에 길이 있다 (tteusi inneun gose giri itda)

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Meaning: Where there’s a will, there’s a way

Literal Translation: In the place, there is a will, there is a way

When there's a will

When to use it: This Korean proverb is used to describe situations where one is determined and finds a way to achieve their aims, even if they are difficult. It could be used in a speech or to describe a situation where someone needs to be encouraged to take on a great feat.

12. 엎질러진 물이다 (eopjilleojin murida)

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Meaning: There is no use in crying over spilled milk

Literal Translation: It is spilled water 

There is no use in crying over spilt milk

When to use it: The water is already spilled, so there is no use in making a big deal about it. Use this Korean proverb to express that there is nothing you can do about it.

13. 장님이 코끼리 만지는 격이다 (jangnimi kokkiri manjineun gyeogida)

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Meaning: It is like a blind man describing an elephant

Literal Translation:  It is like a blind man touching an elephant.

It is like a blind man describing an elephant

When to use it: If a blind man is touching an elephant, he likely can’t describe how large it is just by touching it. Use this Korean proverb if someone is acting like an expert, but that person only knows a small amount about the subject.

14. 다 된 밥에 재 뿌리지 마라 (da doen babe jae ppuriji mara)

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Meaning: Don’t rain on someone’s parade

Literal Translation: Don’t spread ashes on cooked rice

SS Don't rain on someone's parade

When to use it: Use this Korean proverb to command someone not to spoil another’s plans or ruin a moment, like delivering bad news at a wedding.

Wrap Up

If you liked this list of proverbs, you might want to go here for some useful Korean phrases or common Korean words. These will be helpful if you want to learn Korean.

Head over here for some tips on how to speak Korean and learn Korean. Then you can integrate these proverbs and sayings into everyday conversations.

Which was your favorite? Which piece of wisdom could you apply to your own life at this time?

Let us know in the comments below!

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