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Ancestors have passed down their wisdom in Korea for centuries through their traditional Korean proverbs, and over the years Korean sayings and idiomatic expressions which have links to Western adages have come into common use.
At 90 Day Korean, we call these sayings and proverbs “Sagely Sayings,” and today we’ve rounded them all up into one place!
Here, you’ll find some useful Korean proverbs and sayings that you’ll be able to make use of in your everyday life. Below each, we’ve outlined examples of situations you could use them in – and as you’ll see, these explanations are more necessary for some than others!
We also put 20 famous proverbs from this list and their explanations in a downloadable PDF that you can take on the go:
In cases where there is a Western equivalent or a similar expression in English, you’ll see that we’ve translated it into its Wester equivalent, but the literal translations are also included so you can also use them as a study tool.
So sit back, take a deep breath, and get ready to be enlightened!
1. Korean Proverb: 제 눈에 안경이다
Meaning: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder
Literal Translation: Glasses in my eyes
When to use it: Have a friend that sees someone they think is attractive, but you don’t agree? See beauty in something/someone that is not traditionally attractive and others can’t see it? Use this phrase to suggest that the glasses we see with are all different.
2. Korean Proverb: 꿩 먹고 알 먹는다
Meaning: Kill 2 birds with 1 stone
Literal Translation: If you eat a pheasant, you also eat the egg
When to use it: Use this 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. Korean Proverb: 로마는 하루아침에 이루어진 것이 아니다
Meaning: Rome wasn’t built in a day
Literal Translation: Rome wasn’t made in one morning
When to use it: Like in English, this is used to remind someone that you cannot expect to do important tasks really quickly, and that quality work takes time.
4. Korean Proverb: 보기 좋은 떡이 먹기도 좋다
Meaning: What looks good tastes good
Literal Translation: Good looking ddeok (rice cake) 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, if a chef makes a dish looks delicious, it will be delicious.
5. Korean Proverb: 과부 설움은 홀아비가 안다
Meaning: Misery loves company
Literal Translation: A widower knows a widow’s sorrow
When to use it: To express the idea that people who are unhappy like to express their emotions to others or are comforted by the unhappiness of others, like a student who gets detention who tries to get others in trouble so they don’t need to serve it alone!
6. Korean Proverb: 낮말은 새가 듣고 밤말은 쥐가 듣는다
Meaning: The walls have ears
Literal Translation: Birds hear the words spoken in the day, and mice hear the words spoken at night
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. Korean Proverb: 눈에서 멀어지면, 마음에서도 멀어진다
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. It could be used to describe a couple who is having troubles in a long distance relationship.
8. Korean Proverb: 말을 냇가에 끌고 갈 수는 있어도 억지로 물을 먹일 수는 없다
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: 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. Korean Proverb: 백지장도 맞들면 낫다
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: 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. Korean Proverb: 궁하면 통한다
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 Korean, it 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. Korean Proverb: 뜻이 있는 곳에 길이 있다
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: It 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. Korean Proverb: 엎질러진 물이다
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. There is nothing you can do about it.
13. Korean Proverb: 장님이 코끼리 만지는 격이다
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 if someone is acting like an expert, but that person only knows a small amount about the subject.
14. Korean Proverb: 다 된 밥에 재 뿌리지 마라
Meaning: Don’t rain on someone’s parade
Literal Translation: Don’t spread ashes on cooked rice
When to use it: Use it to command someone not to spoil another’s plans or ruin a moment, like delivering bad news at a wedding.
15. Korean Proverb: 웃음은 최고의 명약이다
Meaning: Laughter is the best medicine
Literal Translation: Laughter is the best healer
When to use it: You can use it 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 Korean proverb to a friend after they break up with their boyfriend.
16. Korean Proverb: 병 주고 약 준다
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. Korean Proverb: 누워서 떡 먹기
Meaning: A piece of cake
Literal Translation: Eat ddeok while lying down
When to use it: This is a 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’, meaning it was as easy to cool as ‘lying down and eating ddeok’.
18. Korean Proverb: 될성부른 나무는 떡잎부터 알아본다
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. Korean Proverb: 가재는 게 편이라
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 it in describe the how those who are similar in character, appearance or background tend to stick together.
20. Korean Proverb: 원숭이도 나무에서 떨어질 때가 있다
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 expression 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 to suggest that mistakes happen.
21. Korean Proverb: 개구리 올챙이 적 생각도 못 한다
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’ about you.
22. Korean Proverb: 굴러온 돌이 박힌 돌 빼낸다
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. Korean Proverb: 아는 길도 물어가라
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 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’ to motivate him to properly prepare and insure success!
24. Korean Proverb: 옷이 날개다
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!
25. Korean Proverb: 그림의 떡
Meaning: A pie in the sky
Literal Translation: A picture of ddeok (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’.
26. Korean Proverb: 가는 말이 고와야오는 말이 곱다
Meaning: One good turn deserves another
Literal Translation: If going words are beautiful, coming words will be beautiful
When to use it: Use this 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’. If your friend talks nicely about others, then good things will come back his or her way!
27. Korean Proverb: 가는 날이 장날
Meaning: Bad timing
Literal Translation: Going day is the fair day
When to use it: 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 say this Korean proverb: ‘가는 날이 장날’.
28. Korean Proverb: 등잔 밑이 어둡다
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 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.
29. Korean Proverb: 공자 앞에서 문자 쓴다
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 how to ice skate. ‘공자 앞에서 문자 쓴다!’
30. Korean Proverb: 서당 개 삼 년이면 풍월을 읊는다
Meaning: You automatically learn what you expose yourself to
Literal Translation: A school dog recites a poem after three years
31. Korean Proverb: 김치국부터 마시지 말라
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 a new car, and 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. Korean Proverb: 개천에서 용 난다
Meaning: From rags to riches
Literal Translation: From the stream a dragon rises
33. Korean Proverb: 구르는 돌에는 이끼가 끼지 않는다
Meaning: A rolling stone gathers no moss
Literal Translation: A rolling stone gathers no moss
34. Korean Proverb: 빈 수레가 요란하다
Meaning: Empty vessels make the most sound
Literal Translation: An empty cart rattles loudly
35. Korean Proverb: 똥 묻은 개가 겨 묻은 개 나무란다
Meaning: The pot calling the kettle black
Literal Translation: The dog covered with dung scolds the dog with the chaff.
36. Korean Proverb: 시작이 반이다
Meaning: Well begun is half done
Literal Translation: The start is the half
37. Korean Proverb: 금강산도 식후경이다
Meaning: A loaf of bread is better than the song of many birds
Literal Translation: First eat then go see Geumgang Mountain
38. Korean Proverb: 웃는 얼굴에 침 뱉으랴
Meaning: It is hard to get angry at a smiling face
Literal Translation: You can’t spit in a smiling face
39. Korean Proverb: 찬물도 위아래가 있다
Meaning: There is a proper order for everything
Literal Translation: Cold water is at the top and bottom
40. Korean Proverb: 가려운 곳을 긁어 주다
Meaning: You scratch where it itches
Literal Translation: Give a scratch to the itchy place
When to use it: This is a great Korean proverb to use 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!
41. Korean Proverb: 돌다리도 두들겨 보고 건너라
Meaning: Look before you leap
Literal Translation: First knock on the stone bridge before crossing
42. Korean Proverb: 호랑이에게 물려가도 정신만 차리면 산다
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. Korean Proverb: 고양이에게 생선을 맡기다
Meaning: Let the fox guard the sheep
Literal Translation: Entrust the fish to the cat
44. Korean Proverb: 콩 심은 데 콩 나고 팥 심은 데 팥 난다
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. Korean Proverb: 싼 게 비지떡이다
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. Korean Proverb: 배움에는 왕도가 없다
Meaning: There is no shortcut to learning
Literal Translation: There is no shortcut to learning
47. Korean Proverb: 장구를 쳐야 춤을 추지
Meaning: Help is needed at times
Literal Translation: You can only dance when the jangu (drum) is played
48. Korean Proverb: 고생 끝에 낙이 온다
Meaning: No pain, no gain
Literal Translation: Delight comes at the end of difficulty
When to use it: Your sister is studying so she can take a test to get into medical school. She’s 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!’
49. Korean Proverb: 말 한마디에 천냥 빚을 갚는다
Meaning: A soft answer turns away wrath
Literal Translation: One word pays back a debt of a thousand nyang
50. Korean Proverb: 지렁이도 밟으면 꿈틀한다
Meaning: Even gentle people can lose their tempers
Literal Translation: Even a worm will wiggle if you step on it
51. Korean Proverb: 하늘이 무너져도 솟아날 구멍이 있다
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. Korean Proverb: 개똥도 약에 쓰려면 없다
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. Korean Proverb: 아니 땐 굴뚝에 연기 날까
Meaning: Where there’s smoke, there’s fire
Literal Translation: Will smoke come out of a chimney if there is no fire?
54. Korean Proverb: 올라간 것은 반드시 내려와야 한다
Meaning: What goes up must come down
Literal Translation: What goes up must come down
55. Korean Proverb: 소 잃고 외양간 고치기
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. We’ll continue to add to this list over time.
Bonus Korean Idioms & Sayings
1. Korean Idiom/Saying: 말보다는 실천을 하라
Meaning: Actions speak louder than words
Literal Translation: Don’t just speak, put it into action
When to use it: This can be used in any situation 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.
2. Korean Idiom/Saying: 늦더라도 안 하느니보다 낫다
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 to an appointment.
3. Korean Idiom/Saying: 정직은 최선의 방책이다
Meaning: Honest is the best policy
Literal Translation: Honesty is the best way
When to use it: To express to someone that telling the truth is the right thing to do, like a girlfriend who caught their boyfriend skipping Korean class!
4. Korean Idiom/Saying: 날개 돋친 듯이 팔리다
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: 재주가 많은 사람은 뭐 하나 제대로 하는게 없다
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: 예방은 치료약보다 낫다
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: 행운의 여신은 용기 있는 자를 좋아한다
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: 오늘 한 시간이 내일 두 시간 보다 가치있다
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.
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!