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[Kim Seong-kon] Coined English words are for domestic use only

These days, the Korean people have invented a few new English words, such as “untact” or “with corona,” which means, respectively “no contact” and “living with the coronavirus.” When Koreans say a “notebook,” they refer to a “laptop.” When they say, a “hand phone,” they mean a “cellphone.” Other examples include “po-doc” for “post-doc,” and “oil” for “gasoline.”

Such a phenomenon reflects the Korean mindset based on the precept that “We do things our own way.”

However, the problem is that using the above coined English words inevitably invites communication problems because no foreigners would understand those words. Naturally, misunderstandings occur. For example, when you ask for “oil” at an American gas station, you will end up getting a can of engine oil. Calling a laptop a “notebook,” too, causes confusion. Some time ago, the State University of New York at Buffalo sent an email to foreign Visiting Scholars, stating, “At the Orientation, we will give you a notebook.” Reading the line, visiting Korean scholars were overjoyed because they mistakenly thought that the University would give them a free laptop as a welcome gift. Naturally, they were disappointed later.

Indeed, there is a plethora of awkward or wrong English words used by Koreans. For example, Koreans say, “TV talent,” “gag man,” and “movie mania,” instead of standard terms, “TV actor/actress,” “comedian” and “movie buff.” As for kitchen utensils, Koreans call a blender a “mixer” and a frying pan a “fry pan.” As for car parts, Koreans name them differently as well; they call the steering wheel a “handle,” the emergency brake the “side brake,” the rearview mirror “back mirror” and the windshield wiper “window brush.” When his car has a flat tire, a Korean says, “I got a tire punk.” In addition, the Korean people use the term, “mama boy” instead of “mama’s boy” and a “ball pen” for a “ballpoint pen.”

Often, when Koreans pronounce English words in the wrong way, communication blocks can ensue. For example, Koreans pronounce “genome,” “hair gel,” “halogen,” and “estrogen” wrongfully, by pronouncing the “ge-” as if they were pronouncing “ge-” in “get.” Another example is “aloe” and “oboe,” in which the “e” is supposed to be silent, but Koreans often mistakenly pronounce it. In such cases, it might occur that native English speakers would not understand them due to this wrong pronunciation.

In addition, there are frequently used English expressions that Koreans are not familiar with, because their English textbooks do not introduce them. For example, Americans frequently say these days, “Have a good one,” which means, “Have a nice day.” If you do not understand what it means, you might not be able to respond properly and you may look rude inadvertently.

“Walking the dog” is another example. On the streets of America, you can see many people walking their dogs. However, many Koreans do not know the expression because they have never encountered it in their English textbooks, which are usually written by Korean authors. Koreans would think that “taking a walk with the dog” or “walking with the dog” is natural and correct.

There are English words used by native speakers of English every day, and yet English textbooks in Korea do not teach them. One example is “generic.” The other day, I dropped by a CVS pharmacy to buy a pack of Sudafed Sinus Congestion, which was available behind the counter. When something is “over the counter,” you can buy it freely. When it is “behind the counter,” however, you should ask for it at the counter. The pharmacist told me, “We have a generic one. Would that be all right?” Then, he brought a CVS brand, not a Sudafed. “Generic” is a commonly used term in the US and if you do not understand the meaning of it, you will encounter communication problems

At fast food chain shop, such as McDonalds, Koreans use the term “set,” such as the “Big Mac set,” which comes with fries and beverages. In America, however, people generally use the term, “Big Mac meal.” In residential areas, the town authorities set up “speed bumps” to slow down the cars. Koreans know the term but are not familiar with other frequently used names such as “speed table” or “speed hump.” Americans also frequently say, “You bet,” which means, “Sure thing.”

It would be embarrassing if English-speaking Korean people could not understand the expressions of American children. Foreigners have pointed out that most English textbooks in Korea are plagued by outdated 19th century expressions. Besides, our English textbooks are also full of grammar that even a native speaker of English would not know. As a result, we have so many grammar experts who cannot speak English at all.

We should teach our students living English, so they can freely converse with native speakers of English. We can use coined English words for convenience’s sake. Nevertheless, we should be aware that those words are for domestic use only, not for overseas. 


Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.
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