Korean Proverbs Idioms & Sayings – 55 Expressions You’ll Love

Last Updated on October 26, 2020 by 90 Day Korean
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Looking for inspiration from some Korean proverbs? You’ve come to the right place!

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

Here is a list of the most common Korean proverbs.

  • 제 눈에 안경이다 (je nune angyeongida)
  • 꿩 먹고 알 먹는다 (kkwong meokgo al meongneunda)
  • 로마는 하루아침에 이루어진 것이 아니다 (romaneun haruachime irueojin geosi anida)
  • 보기 좋은 떡이 먹기도 좋다 (bogi joeun tteogi meokgido jota)
  • 과부 설움은 홀아비가 안다 (gwabu seorumeun horabiga anda)
  • 낮말은 새가 듣고 밤말은 쥐가 듣는다 (nanmareun saega deutgo bammareun jwiga deunneunda)
  • 눈에서 멀어지면, 마음에서도 멀어진다 (nuneseo meoreojimyeon, maeumeseodo meoreojinda)
  • 말을 냇가에 끌고 갈 수는 있어도 억지로 물을 먹일 수는 없다 (mareul naetgae kkeulgo gal suneun isseodo eokjiro mureul meogil suneun eopda)
  • 백지장도 맞들면 낫다 (baekjijangdo matdeulmyeon natda)
  • 궁하면 통한다 (gunghamyeon tonghanda)

Below on this page, we’ve listed 55 popular proverbs, their meanings, and audio so you can listen and practice speaking. Read on to learn all about them! 

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Want to take these 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:

On this page, you’ll find some useful Korean proverbs and sayings that you’ll be able to make use of in your everyday life. You might hear or use them the next time you’re in Korea.

Below is the list of proverbs along with the meanings and translations. After the proverbs, there is a list of popular Korean idioms and sayings. Click on the blue text next to the yellow speaker icon to hear the pronunciation.

For now, let’s sit back, take a deep breath, and get ready to be enlightened!

Korean Proverbs

Below each of the proverbs, we explain the meaning along with examples of situations where you might want to use them. Sometimes the literal translation to English 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 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 phrases like these. It’s super easy to learn, so give it a try!

1.

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 don’t agree.

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 see with are all different.

2.

Meaning: Kill 2 birds with 1 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.

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 is used to remind 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. This proverb can also be used for your favorite K-pop idol or group. They trained for years to get the fame they have now.

4.

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 the 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.

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 people who are unhappy like to express their emotions to others or are comforted by the unhappiness of others. It example could be a student who gets detention who tries to get others in trouble so they don’t need to serve it alone!

6.

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: If you know someone who spreads rumors or talks poorly of others, you should step in and say this Korean proverb.

7.

Out of sight, out of mind

Meaning: Out of sight, out of mind

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

When to use it: To express the idea that when someone or something cannot be seen, it is easy to forget them or forget about that thing. This Korean proverb could be used to describe a couple who is having trouble in a long-distance relationship.

8.

You Can Lead a Horse to water

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

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. It may be used by two mothers who are talking about their sons and how they can’t get them to do homework. 

9.

Two Heads are Better than One

Meaning: Two heads are better than one

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

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.

10.

there is always a way out

Meaning: There is always a way out

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

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.

When there's a will

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

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

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.

There is no use in crying over spilt milk

Meaning: There is no use in crying over spilt milk

Literal Translation: It is spilt water 

When to use it: The water is already spilt, 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.

It is like a blind man describing an elephant

Meaning: It is like a blind man describing an elephant

Literal Translation:  It is like a blind man touching 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.

SS Don't rain on someone's parade

Meaning: Don’t rain on someone’s parade

Literal Translation: Don’t spread ashes on cooked rice

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.

15.

Laughter is the Best Medicine

Meaning: Laughter is the best medicine

Literal Translation: Laughter is the best healer

When to use it: You can use this Korean proverb to suggest to someone that trying to be happy or thinking happy thoughts will help you overcome worry or depression. For example, you could suggest this expression to a friend after they break up with their boyfriend.

16.

Meaning: To make trouble and then give help

Literal Translation: Give a disease then give medicine

When to use it: This Korean proverb is used someone helps after causing trouble. You could use this in the case where someone gives an insult, then kind words after. For example, ‘your style isn’t great, but I love your personality.’ Or, someone says insulting words to you, but then offers to buy you lunch.

17.

A piece of cake

Meaning: A piece of cake

Literal Translation: Eat tteok while lying down

When to use it: This is a great Korean proverb to use to express how easy something is. For example, imagine your best friend is a chef and he makes you dinner. You say it’s delicious, and he says ‘누워서 떡 먹기야 (nuwoseo tteok meokgiya)’, meaning it was as easy to cook as ‘lying down and eating tteok’.

18.

Genius displays itself from an early age

Meaning: Genius shows itself from an early age

Literal Translation: You can know a promising tree from when it’s a baby tree

When to use it: Use this Korean proverb to describe a person with a bright future from an early age. It can be applied to a smart child who you think will grow up to be a brilliant adult. Or, say it about a child who is great at basketball, and you think will be a basketball star later in life.

19.

Birds of a feather flock together

Meaning: Birds of a feather flock together

Literal Translation: The crayfish sides with the crab

When to use it: Since a crayfish and a crab have many similar traits, this saying implies that they would side with each other. Use this Korean proverb to describe how those who are similar in character, appearance, or background tend to stick together.

20.

Even a monkey sometimes falls from the tree

Meaning: Even a monkey sometimes falls from the tree

Literal Translation: There is a time when even a monkey falls from a tree

When to use it: Use this Korean proverb to suggest that even experts sometimes make mistakes. Monkeys are great climbers but sometimes fall. If a friend is really beating themself up over a mistake, use this expression to suggest that mistakes happen.

21.

The parish priest forgets that he was once a parish clerk

Meaning: The parish priest forgets that he was once a parish clerk

Literal Translation: The frog can’t remember the times when he was a tadpole

When to use it: There may be times when a professional or experienced person thinks highly of him or herself. He or she can’t relate to beginners, even though that’s where he or she started.

Imagine that you’re a great dancer, and you keep bragging to your best friend who is a novice. Then your mom enters the room and says the Korean proverb ‘개구리 올챙이 적 생각도 못 한다 (gaeguri olchaengi jeok saenggakdo mot handa)’ about you.

22.

The new replaces the old

Meaning: The new replaces the old

Literal Translation: A rolling stone extracts a stone that is embedded.

When to use it: Let’s say that you’re the manager for your team at work, but you’re doing mediocre work at your job. A newcomer joins your team, does a great job, and soon becomes the new manager. The president of the company then pops in and says this Korean proverb about the rolling stone.

23.

It is better to ask the way

Meaning: Better to ask the way than to go astray

Literal Translation: Ask first then go, even if it’s a road you know

When to use it: This Korean proverb is great for situations when someone should be careful and work hard on a task, regardless of the significance of the task. Let’s say your brother is taking the Japanese proficiency test, and knows Japanese really well. He is confident, so thinks he doesn’t have to study. Use ‘아는 길도 물어가라 (aneun gildo mureogara)’ to motivate him to properly prepare and insure success!

24.

Clothes Make the man

Meaning: Clothes make the man

Literal Translation: Clothes are your wings

When to use it: Use this proverb to emphasize the importance of dressing well. If you find yourself in a situation where you need to say ‘dress well’, remember this Korean proverb. It means the same thing as the English expression “Clothes make the man”. 

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25.

A pie in the sky

Meaning: A pie in the sky

Literal Translation: A picture of tteok (rice cake)

When to use it: Imagine that you’re heading to the department store while you’re reading these Korean proverbs. Your friend spots an amazing bag, and she wants to buy it. It’s 8x her monthly salary, so she can’t afford to buy it. You chime in with ‘그림의 떡이야 (geurimui tteogiya)’.

26.

One good turn deserves another

Meaning: One good turn deserves another

Literal Translation: If going words are beautiful, coming words will be beautiful

When to use it: Use this Korean proverb to encourage people to talk nicely about others. For example, if your friend is talking poorly about another friend, you can say ‘가는 말이 고와야오는 말이 곱다 (ganeun mari gowayaoneun mari gopda)’. If your friend talks nicely about others, then good things will come back his or her way!

27.

Bad Timing

Meaning: Bad timing

Literal Translation: Going day is the fair day

When to use it: This proverb means bad timing, so it could be used to express that your timing for something wasn’t good.

Imagine you go to your favorite brunch restaurant with your family. As you approach the door, there is a sign on the door that says ‘Closed for Children’s Day‘. In that case, you can use this Korean proverb: ‘가는 날이 장날 (ganeun nari jangnal)’.

28.

 It is often difficult to see what is right in front of you

Meaning: It’s often difficult to see what is right in front of you

Literal Translation: The bottom of the lamp is dark

When to use it: This is a great Korean proverb that can be used to talk about things that you overlook. An example would be if you are criticizing your neighbor for not shoveling the snow off of his doorstep, but your doorstep needs shoveling as well. It means that you should pay attention to things in front of you.

29.

Don’t try to teach a fish how to swim

Meaning: Don’t try to teach a fish how to swim

Literal Translation: Write hanja in front of Confucius

When to use it: You can say this proverb to someone who is so arrogant that he or she is trying to teach an expert how to do something. For example, this would be good to say if someone was trying to teach 김연아 (Yuna Kim | A South Korean former competitive figure skater) how to ice skate. ‘공자 앞에서 문자 쓴다 (gongja apeseo munja sseunda)!’

30.

you automatically learn what you expose yourself to

Meaning: You automatically learn what you expose yourself to

Literal Translation: A school dog recites a poem after three years

31.

Don't count your chickens before theyre hatched

Meaning: Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched

Literal Translation: Don’t drink the kimchi soup first

When to use it: Let’s say your friend is buying something, such as a new car. She is deciding between a standard car and a more expensive car. If she is counting on a raise at work in order to pay for the more expensive car, you can use this Korean proverb.

The meaning is that you should wait until what you expect to happen, actually happens. Kimchi soup is eaten after food to improve digestion. Therefore, you should wait for your main meal to come before eating the soup

32.

From rags to riches

Meaning: From rags to riches

Literal Translation: From the stream, a dragon rises

33.

A rolling stone gathers no moss

Meaning: A rolling stone gathers no moss

Literal Translation: A rolling stone gathers no moss

34.

Empty vessels make the most sound

Meaning: Empty vessels make the most sound

Literal Translation: An empty cart rattles loudly

35.

The pot calling the kettle black

Meaning: The pot calling the kettle black

Literal Translation: The dog covered with dung scolds the dog with the chaff.

36.

Well begun is half done

Meaning: Well begun is half done

Literal Translation: The start is the half

When to use it: This is one of the more popular Korean proverbs. It means that just getting started at all is something significant.

This is one of the proverbs you could use with a friend who is starting something new but is unsure of the direction. For example, maybe your friend is learning Korean, and you want to applaud her for doing so. Use these simple words to give your friend some support!

37.

A loaf of bread is better than the song of many birds

Meaning: A loaf of bread is better than the song of many birds

Literal Translation: First eat then go see Geumgang Mountain

38.

It is hard to get angry at a smiling face

Meaning: It is hard to get angry at a smiling face

Literal Translation: You can’t spit in a smiling face

39.

There is a proper order for everything

Meaning: There is a proper order for everything

Literal Translation: Cold water is at the top and bottom

40.

You scratch where it itches

Meaning: You scratch where it itches

Literal Translation: Give a scratch to the itchy place

When to use it: This Korean proverb can be used when someone does something to satisfy your needs without you having to ask for it. For example, imagine you just got done with a basketball game. You are very thirsty, and without asking, your friend gives you an ice cold Powerade. 가려운 곳을 긁어 주다 (garyeoun goseul geulgeo juda)!

Keep proverbs like this handy when you get something unexpected. 

41.

Look before you leap

Meaning: Look before you leap

Literal Translation: First knock on the stone bridge before crossing

42.

Keep your cool even in the face of despair

Meaning: Keep your cool even in the face of despair

Literal Translation: Even though a tiger is biting you, if you gain consciousness, (you can) live

43.

Let the fox guard the sheep

Meaning: Let the fox guard the sheep

Literal Translation: Entrust the fish to the cat

44.

You reap what you sow

Meaning: You reap what you sow

Literal Translation: A bean grows where you plant a bean, and a red bean grows where you plant a red bean

45.

If you buy cheap, you waste your money

Meaning: If you buy cheap, you waste your money

Literal Translation: Cheap things are dreg cakes (rice cakes made from remains of bean curd)

46.

There is No Shortcut for Learning

Meaning: There is no shortcut to learning

Literal Translation: There is no shortcut to learning

47.

Help is needed at times

Meaning: Help is needed at times

Literal Translation: You can only dance when the jangu (drum) is played

48.

No pain, no gain

Meaning: No pain, no gain

Literal Translation: Delight comes at the end of difficulty

When to use it: This proverb can be used for someone who is going through a difficult time while working towards something worthwhile. 

This proverb could be used if your sister is studying so she can take a test to get into medical school. Let’s say she is halfway through the test prep course, and she wants to give up because it’s so difficult. You encourage her to keep going by saying ‘고생 끝에 낙이 온다 (gosaeng kkeute nagi onda)!’

The translation of the words into English is similar to what the proverb actually means. 

49.

A soft answer turns away wrath

Meaning: A soft answer turns away wrath

Literal Translation: One word pays back a debt of a thousand nyang

50.

Even gentle people can lose their tempers

Meaning: Even gentle people can lose their tempers

Literal Translation: Even a worm will wiggle if you step on it

51.

There is a way out of every situation

Meaning: There is a way out of every situation

Literal Translation: Even if the sky collapses, there is a hole to escape out of

52.

Things are never where you want them

Meaning: Things are never where you want them

Literal Translation: When you want to find even dog dung to use as medicine, you can’t find it

53.

Where theres smoke theres fire

Meaning: Where there’s smoke, there’s fire

Literal Translation: Will smoke come out of a chimney if there is no fire?

54.

What goes up must come down

Meaning: What goes up must come down

Literal Translation: What goes up must come down

55.

Meaning: Hindsight is 20/20

Literal Translation: Fix the barn after losing the cow

 

We hope you’re a tad wiser after reading through these Korean proverbs and idioms, and we’ll hope you’ll put them into practice. 

Which of these Korean proverbs was your favorite? Let us know in the comments below!

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Bonus Korean Idioms & Sayings

1. Korean Idiom/Saying:

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Meaning: Actions speak louder than words

Literal Translation: Don’t just speak, put it into action

When to use it: This saying can be used in any situation in which you want to motivate another to get something done. For example, a mother could use this to their school-aged child to get them to do their homework instead of just saying they’ll do it later. The literal translation of words into English is similar to its actual meaning, so this one is easy to understand. 

2. Korean Idiom/Saying:

Better late than never

Meaning: Better late than never

Literal Translation: Late is better than not doing

When to use it: You can use this phrase in cases when you think it’s better to do something late than to never arrive or happen, like arriving at an appointment.

3. Korean Idiom/Saying:

Honesty is the best policy

Meaning: Honest is the best policy

Literal Translation: Honesty is the best way

When to use it: This saying can be used to express to someone that telling the truth is the right thing to do. For example, it might be used with a girlfriend who caught her boyfriend skipping Korean class!

4. Korean Idiom/Saying:

Selling Like Hotcakes

Meaning: Selling like hotcakes

Literal Translation: Selling as if they’re flying away

When to use it: This is a Korean equivalent to “selling like hotcakes,” and can be used to describe things that are selling really well, like umbrellas when it’s raining or ice cream on a really hot day!

5. Korean Idiom/Saying:

jack of all trades, master of none

Meaning: Jack of all trades, master of none

Literal Translation: A person with many skills cannot do one properly

When to use it: Use it when referring to a person that is competent in many skills, but never becomes an expert in any particular one because they are too busy learning skills to an adequate level.

6. Korean Idiom/Saying:

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure

Meaning: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure

Literal Translation: Prevention is better than a cure

When to use it: You can use it to suggest that is is better to try to avoid problems in the first place, rather than trying to fix them once they come up.

7. Korean Idiom/Saying:

Fortune favors the brave

Meaning: Fortune favors the brave

Literal Translation: The goddess of good fortune likes a person who has courage

When to use it: It is commonly used to encourage people to be brave and carry out their plans. For example, a friend may say it to another who is doubting whether they should start their own business or open a shop.

8. Korean Idiom/Saying:

One hour today is worth two tomorrow

Meaning: One hour today is worth two tomorrow

Literal Translation: There is more worth in one hour today than in two hours tomorrow

When to use it: You can use it to suggest that doing something immediately and taking action, even if it’s not perfect, is better than procrastinating.

 

If you liked this list of Korean proverbs, then you may want to go here for some useful Korean phrases or here for common Korean words. Both will be great for upping your Korean language skills.

Head over here for some tips on how to speak 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!

    35 replies to "Korean Proverbs Idioms & Sayings – 55 Expressions You’ll Love"

    • Avatar for Fitriyyah Fitriyyah

      Thank You for this post. Is there anything idioms that related to bird. Because my country’s idiom has a lot that related to it. Just curious.

      • Avatar for 90 Day Korean 90 Day Korean

        Hi, Fitriyyah! There are a lot of bird-related idioms in Korea! For example, “새 발의 피” means “a drop in a bucket”! ^^

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