So I’m sure you have all heard the word 오빠 (oppa) in many K-pop songs; everyone at least now knows “Oppa-n Gangnam style!”
오빠 simply means older brother, but this can only be used when describing the relationship between a girl and an older male. Korean uses a very complicated system of titles for addressing other people and kinship terms for family members. Koreans very rarely use the pronoun, you (너 neo), other than when speaking to a friend who is either the same age or younger than you. Therefore, other specific terms are used to describe different relationships between males and females. These can be used to refer to anyone and not limited to within families.
오빠 oppa: female » older male
언니 eonni: female » older female
누나 nuna: male » older female
형 hyeong: male » older male
(남/여)동생 (nam/yeo)dongsaeng: male/female » younger male/female
친 (chin) can be attached to the front of all of these words to explicitly describe one’s own family members, for example, 친형 means one’s real older brother, 친동생 can mean one’s real younger brother or sister. Attaching 남/여 to 동생 allows you to distinguish the gender. Also, names are commonly added in front of these terms. For example, 수지 언니 would mean older sister, Suzy.
However, one thing that has broken away from traditional Korean values is the use of 오빠 within a relationship. It is common and accepted for a girl to call their (older) boyfriend, 오빠. However this is still unfavourably viewed by traditionalist Koreans, especially if 오빠 is still being used after marriage. Instead other affectionate terms, such as 자기 (jagi) and 여보 (yeobo), are the most commonly used terms between couples, meaning honey/ darling.
Tactical use of 오빠
The majority of guys in Korea love being called 오빠. I suppose it gives males a sense of authority and feel more masculine. So, luckily for you girls, you might be able to use 오빠 to your advantage. Along with this, the use of 애교 (aegyo), which is an act of cuteness in Korea, is often a quality that Korean men find attractive. That being said, men might also use 오빠 in an attempt to try to appear more masculine and swoon a girl they might like, for example, if a guy says, “오빠가 사줄게 (oppaka sajulke)” meaning “older brother will buy it”, it might be a slight hint to the girl that he likes her. Although, in some cases, this may come across as a bit too direct if the girl is not already comfortable with calling the male friend, 오빠. Relationships are all too complicated, eh?
My personal experience
Although a lot of males love being called 오빠, I have personally found that not to be the case. I suppose this is mainly because I don’t know many Korean girls who are younger than me, so when I do get called 오빠, it sounds slightly awkward and I just feel old, especially if they are just a few months younger than me! So most of the time, I will just ask them to call me Ben.
Funnily, while I was in Korea, there a woman working on a clothes stall in a department store, who was clearly at least 10 years older than me, that said “오빠, 잘 생겼다~ (Oppa, you’re good looking)”. To be fair, maybe if she had been super pretty and my type, I may have been okay with it, but this woman looked more like my mother and it made me cringe at the time. It was definitely one of my weirder Korean experiences!
Having said that, I have occasionally used 이모 (imo) which means aunt, when calling over the old ladies who work in Korean restaurants. Although, some of my Korean friends might find it awkward saying this, I think it is much more respectful than simply saying 아줌마 (ajumma; old woman) or 저기요 (jeokiyo; excuse me, lit. over here), and by saying 이모 really does make the workers smile and have always acted a lot kinder towards me. You never know you might even get a free kimbap!
I hope you enjoyed this introduction to use of 오빠 and some other titles in Korean. If you have any questions or anything else you would like me to cover, please leave a comment! That’s it for now! In the meantime, see if you can pick out some of the terms used in these songs. 그럼 다음주까지 ^^
IU – 좋은 날 (Good Day)
SHINee – 누난 너무 예뻐 (Replay)