The Meaning of Oppa, Hyung, Noona, Unnie

Three people using their smartphones. Used for the main title image for the article explaining the meaning of oppa hyung noona and unnie

You have probably already heard the words oppa (오빠), hyung (형), noona (누나), and unnie (언니) on several occasions. Perhaps you are residing in Korea or watch a lot of Korean dramas and other shows. 

But do you know what they actually mean, why they are used, and when to use them?

At first glance they might look like they’re just silly little words that get thrown around too much. However, it’s actually of great importance to be knowledgeable about them. We’ll teach you everything you need to know!

Three people using their smartphones. Used for the main title image for the article explaining the meaning of oppa hyung noona and unnie

We’ve included a FREE PDF version of this lesson that you can take with you on the go. Check it out below:

In Korea, it’s important to know the age of the person you are dealing with, and refer to them accordingly. You might have come to Korea from a Western country where ‘age is just a number’, but that’s quite the opposite in South Korea. Not only that, but Koreans have their own age-calculating system where your age is calculated based on your birth year. When January 1st hits, everyone becomes one year older, so to speak. Which month you were born on doesn’t matter in that sense.

However, an additional piece of information regarding this that doesn’t get talked about as much is that, depending on the Korean, they might actually calculate their age based on the Lunar calendar instead of the Western New Year. In this case, while your age is still calculated by the year you were born in, people born in, say January of 1993, are still considered the same age as those born in 1992 simply because Lunar New Year hasn’t passed yet by the time they were born.

Meaning of the words

Unnie

Now, let’s get to the point. If you are a woman and the man is older than you (related to you or not), you should call him oppa (오빠). In the case you are a woman and another woman is older than you, then the word to call them by is unnie (언니). On the other hand, if you are a man in the company of an older man or simply having a conversation with them, you should refer to them as hyung (형), and in the case of your conversation partner being an older woman, then call her noona (누나).

In short:

oppa (오빠) = females speaking to older males

hyung (형) = males speaking to older males

noona (누나) = males speaking to older females

unnie (언니) = females speaking to older females

Oppa (오빠) and hyung (형) mean ‘older brother’, noona (누나) and unnie (언니) mean ‘older sister’. However, the meaning of these terms expands much further than just your blood related siblings.

Before using these terms, take into consideration these three things:

  1. If there are decades worth of age difference between you two, it’s less likely for these terms to be used.
  2. Even if you’re not talking to directly the people you call oppa, hyung, noona, and unnie, whenever you refer to them in a conversation with someone else, you should attach one of these terms after the name of the person you are talking about.
  3. You might want to refrain from using this terms when meeting them for the first time. On the other hand, if you are in a Korean restaurant, even if the (usually older female) waitresses are strangers to you, it’s not weird for men to call them by noona (누나) and women by unnie (언니), regardless of age difference.
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Some other instances you might want to consider

Friends

What about the cases where person is the same age as you? Then you two can comfortably call each other friends which in Korea is the word chingu (친구). In this case it’s likely you’ll just refer to them by name (if you are close).

What if you are the one who is older? Then the other person is your dongsaeng (동생)! This term means both little sister and little brother, though if you want to put more emphasis on the gender of the dongsaeng you are talking about, you can add yeo (여) for girls and nam (남) for boys. However, usually these gender markers are used only when talking about your actual blood-related siblings.

Does age ever not matter?

Age don't matter

There are also instances and Korean people who might be less fussy about using such terms, especially when dealing with foreigners. Some men might find it odd for you to call them oppa (오빠), some women will chuckle whenever you refer to them as unnie (언니). While some men a year or two younger than the woman are dead set on calling them noona (누나) at every turn possible, others will refer to the woman by her name instead. In general, the less age difference there is and the closer you two are, the less important it will be, and a lot of senior citizens no longer care at all.

In school and work life environment, more so than your age, other things matter. At work, your title and status take precedence over everything else. In school, it’s when you started school that determines how you should be referred to as. These also apply among colleagues of the same status level at work.

At university, no matter if the person is actually older than you or not, if they started earlier than you did, then you should call them seonbae (선배) aka ‘senior’ or ‘older alumnus’. Those who started later than you can be referred to as hubae (후배) aka ‘junior’.

Outside of the terms represented here, there are so many other terms out there for Koreans to use when referring to one another, based on one’s status, gender, who they are to you, and so on. To explain all these terms, several posts are needed.

Hopefully this information can help you with your acquaintances and friends. The more you integrate into Korean culture, the more of these terms you’ll learn, and the more you’ll enjoy your time with Koreans!

    74 replies to "The Meaning of Oppa, Hyung, Noona, Unnie"

    • Coco lebo

      Hi !
      It’s Chuseok today apparently 🙂
      So happy Chuseok
      But i wanted to say it to a youtuber (a dog and cat channel hehe )
      The person behind the camera is surnamed big bro
      I’m a girl and i don’t want to say oppa what should i do ?
      Is it really obligated or should i just say 큰 형 ?

      • 90 Day Korean

        Hi Coco! You can just call the person’s surname as a nickname and call him “big bro님” (Mr. big bro). ^^

    • Anonymous

      What should I say to a younger sibling? Girl and boy.

      • 90 Day Korean

        You can introduce them to others as your 동생, and you call them by their names. ^^

        • Anonymous

          Thank you

    • Angie

      If two girls are really close, but one is older, would the younger girl still call her unnie? I’m writing a story and I’m worried it sounds too formal for their relationship.

      • 90 Day Korean

        Hi Angie! You can call someone unnie only when you’re close enough, so it won’t be a problem for your story. ^^

    • Kiki

      If I were with my male friend who is one year older, how would I describe our relationship to someone else? 친구 would imply that we are the same age, but 오빠 would suggest that we are related (we do look alike but aren’t related). Can I combine these two or something like that?

      • 90 Day Korean

        Hi Kiki! You can say ‘아는 오빠’ (an acquaintance). ^^

    • GAC

      What should a man born in 1993 call a woman born in 1976? And how should the woman call the man ?

      Thank you for your help.

      • 90 Day Korean

        Hi GAC! If it’s two strangers, it’s better to call each other ‘– 씨’ (Mr./Ms. –). ^^

    • Andrew

      What happens when two people are similar age and/or are unsure who is older? Thanks.

      • 90 Day Korean

        Hi Andrew! Koreans ask each other’s age first to make it clear. Only one-year gap makes a big difference! ^^

    • Cecilia

      I am 45 yo. What do I say to an older woman/man?
      Unni/Oppa?

      • 90 Day Korean

        Hi Ceciilia! It’s better to call people by their name + 씨 (for example, Cecilia 씨) in the beginning. ^^

    • JS

      Hi – I recently went on a trip and a Korean Ajumma realized I understood Korean, so she tried to get my attention to help them take a photo.

      My confusion began when she, a 65+yo woman (if I am being kind, 55+) called me Unnie. Not sure how I’m supposed to take it, but I generally get people thinking I’m about 24yo, not 65+.

      Should I have been offended? I was too confused at the time to react, but I did help them take a photo.

      Thanks,
      JS

      • 90 Day Korean

        Hi JS! I can totally understand how you feel. In Korea, when older people try to speak to a young stranger, they usually say 학생 [haksaeng] (student). But it’s also pretty common that they call ‘unnie’ to be friendly especially when the stranger looks like in her 20s or 30s. ^^

        • JS

          Thank you for the clarification! I was so confused about it for awhile, and have been waiting for this response!

    • Hannah

      How close in age is “slightly” older? For example is 7 years still slight?

      • 90 Day Korean

        Hi Hannah! It’s actually very subjective, but usually 10 years is considered to be the maximum gap to call someone 오빠. ^^

      • Niecy

        If you’re born in 1977 do Koreans think that is an old age?

        • 90 Day Korean

          Hi Niecy! You’re 43 years old in Korea, and it will be a little too old to call 오빠/언니 for people in their 20s. ^^

          • GaC

            How should people in their 20s adress you then?

    • Aiden

      Okay so I have an older female friend that’s a year and a half older than me, but I’ve been putting 아 at the end of her name. Is that okay?

      • 90 Day Korean

        Hi Aiden! It’s okay if she doesn’t care, but usually we call 언니 or 누나. ^^

    • Veronika

      Hello ^.^ I just wanted to ask that If I’m born on February 22 in 2005, (sorry my english is bad) then how old I am in South Korea?
      2. And I also wanted to ask that If people in Korea are more older than I don’t know he/she would say:”Hi, I’m 23 years old”. That means that this is his/her age in Korea but maybe with his “normal” age he is younger?
      3. My last question is that I heard that “Oppa” can be a sexual thing??? I don’t know >.< Like If a girl says "~Oppa" to a boy, like that it's not a thing to seduce him? (Sorry with this idiot questions :c)

      • 90 Day Korean

        Hi Veronika! First, you are 15 years old in Korea.
        Second, only the Korean age matters in Korea. So, if a person says he/she is 23 years old, it’s that person’s Korean age. He/she might be younger in the international age, but it doesn’t matter.
        Finally, Oppa is a way to call a slightly older man by woman. The word itself doesn’t have any sexual nuances.
        Hope it helped! ^^

    • El

      I have a question. If a 16 year old girl is talking to her 38 year old female boss, how would the 16 year old address her boss? How would her boss address her?

      • 90 Day Korean

        Good question! It depends on the title of the boss. For example, the employee can call the boss ‘사장님’ (sajangnim), and the boss usually call the employee ‘name 씨’ (Ms./Mr. name). ^^

        • El

          What if the girl and the boss are very close? Like maybe (this is just an example, I’m just spitballing) when the 16 year old was a young child, the boss babysat her or something? What if their relationship is very much like a familial relationship?

    • Emma

      Hello, I am born in december 2002, my friend is born in 2003. Does that count as having the same age?

      • 90 Day Korean

        Hi Emma! You’re older than your friend by one year. ^^

    • chibiichan

      Can you just add ‘nim’ after the name of a person you just met for the first time? And is ‘hyung’ limited only to be used by males? Can younger girl use them ontead of oppa?

      • 90 Day Korean

        Hi chibiichan! You can use 씨 or 님 after the name. 형 is only for males to call older males. ^^

    • Anarin

      But what is better to be dongsaeng all the way round or unnie/noona/hyung/oppa? Is it true that you do not need to do anything if you are a dongsaeng but need to pay for everything if you are hyung/unnie? Can you please say what are pros and cons of being donsaeng (same for unnie/hyung/noona/oppa) if you are comfortable. thanks ^^

      • 90 Day Korean

        Interesting question! We shouldn’t really compare being a 동생 (dongsaeng) or an older one, because we can’t control our age! In Korea, older ones usually (but not always) pay for the little ones, but the little ones have to do all the errands when you’re the youngest. ^^

    • Riya Chavan

      What about when they call their boyfriends oppa?

      • 90 Day Korean

        Hi Riya! Girls call oppa when their boyfriends are older than them. ^^

    • Ja'mees Jones

      What would I call my friend who’s older than me by a month?

      • Pratik Thakuri

        call hum chingu or just by name

      • 90 Day Korean

        Pratik is right! You can just call your friend by the name. ^^

    • Rob Lopez

      oh gosh. in as much i just want to call everyone by their names — or just a mere “ma’am” or “sir” —- whew… it is still veeery important to research to show respect to culture. thanks for the clarifications. keep those questions coming – they are extremely helpful.

    • Camila

      if I have a friend that’s only a few months younger than me am I her unnie?

      • 90 Day Korean

        Hi Camila! It depends on the year you were born. If you were born in February 2001, and your friend was born in December 2000, you’re considered to be her unnie. ^^

    • Nurul Aqilah

      what to call if you have friends older than you, in general, we should call him oppa but what if u dont want to call him oppa. does it has any other words can represent it in manner ways? like.. to add -nim sounds very formal but if only by name, its sound rude. help me

    • moon

      you can call your grandma noona or its only for friends?

      • 90 Day Korean

        Hi moon! You should call your grandma 할머니 [halmeoni]! Noona is only for women who’re slightly older than you. ^^

    • Izzi

      So if you are a male talking to an older female (as in like a teacher you just met for the first time because it’s a new school/class for you) would you still call her ‘Noona’ or is there another name for it?

      • 90 Day Korean

        Hi Izzi! You should call “선생님” if she’s a teacher or “their name + 씨” when you first meet. It can be rude to call 누나 if you’re not close enough with that person. ^^

        • SAM

          why does kpop fans call their bias as “OPPA” ?please let me know

          • 90 Day Korean

            Great question! There’s a saying that goes “오빠는 나이가 아니라 신분이다” (OPPA is not an age but an identity.) We just want to call them 오빠! ^^

    • Ember

      What do you call a younger brother or sister?

      • 90 Day Korean

        Hi Ember! Usually you just call their names. You can also say 동생(little brother) or 여동생(little sister). ^^

    • Yashika sharma

      In korean if in a word some consonant does not have a vowel how do we write it ?

      • 90 Day Korean

        Hi Yashika! I’m not sure what you’re asking about. Can you give me an example?

      • stasia

        In Korean, you cannot just have a consonant for a word. People often use ㅎㅎㅎ to show laughter but it isnt a word. In a word if you only hear vowels, they are accompanied by ㅇ. Ex: 아이 (children) is pronounced a-i. For a word, you cannot simply have just a vowel, or just a consonant. Hope this helps :))

    • Narii

      this was super helpful but , i watch a lot of ff (fan fictions) of BTS and they always call each other oppa (오빠) , in a sexual way.. (don’t mean to sound weird)

      • 90 Day Korean

        Hi Narii! Fanfictions are fun, but they don’t always make sense! ^^

    • zaina / زينا

      If you wanted to attach an honorific to someone’s name for example 나리 would you leave a space between that and 언니 for example? Or would there be no space?

      • 90 Day Korean

        Good question! You should put a space in between. For example, 나리 언니. ^^

    • swathi jo

      In some Korean series they used the word oppa for their boyfriend,but you said oppa means brother. Then which one is correct?😐😕😯

      • Naisha

        Technically they both are correct, like in Spanish papi means Dad but people also use it for their lovers (Toward males)

    • Honey gupta

      Thanks for the help .Now I know the meaning of these words 😊😄

    • Pia

      Is it correct to say oppa-nim to a close guy friend’s friend if you’re more than just acquaintances (you’ve hung out a couple of times), but still aren’t particularly close either?

      • 90 Day Korean

        Hi Pia! You can just call ‘oppa’ or just ‘name + 씨’, oppa-nim is not a correct word combination. ^^

    • STAN

      What do older males use endearingly to younger females?

      • 90 Day Korean

        Hi STAN! They usually just call names or nicknames ^^

        • STAN

          OK. Thanks.Hey babe hahaha just kidding.

        • John

          It wouldn’t be dong saeng? So the name would be more appropriate than dong saeng?

          • 90 Day Korean

            Yes, you can introduce the younger person as 동생, but you don’t call him/her ‘동생’. ^^

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