Learning Korean Proverbs 속담

Hi everyone! This month, I’m excited to share with you some useful Korean proverbs (속담 sok-dam). I was not really planning to do an article on it until I saw examples of it in this Korean language learning app called Eggbun! I recently downloaded this app, and I’m really amused by it because the instruction format is quite unique. You will learn by chatting with an automated/bot eggbun character called 라니 “Lani”. Also, unlike other learning apps I’ve used before, Eggbun has a section for “Culture Notes”, which are supplementary materials (accompanied by very cute illustrations) to Lani’s instructions about Hangul, Vocabulary, Expressions, and Grammar.

The “Culture Notes” section covers a lot of topics and includes important dates (Seollal and other holidays), Korean slang, must-know Korean foods (street food, unique/strange food, soju, seaweed soup), Korean etiquette (table manners, bowing, shaking hands, etc.), writing a Korean name, writing dates and addresses, Korean mentality (collectivism, and romantic/“couple” culture), and lastly, Korean proverbs!

Screencap of “Culture Notes” tab on Eggbun app.

The Korean proverbs notes certainly piqued my interest. Proverbs are short and simple metaphors, or expressions of wisdom and common sense that have been passed down from generation to generation, and still apply to the everyday modern life. I selected my favorites from the app and listed them below, along with keywords and explanations.

Korean proverbs have also been used as quiz topics in many Korean variety shows, so I also added some that I find interesting. I used Naver to find the best translation to each expression.

Hopefully we can all gain a little more knowledge and perspective on life by remembering them! 🙂

Let’s begin!

Illustration by Eggbun.
원숭이도 나무에서 떨어진다

(won-sung-i-do na-mu-e-seo tteo-reo-jin-da)

  • 원숭/won-sung = monkey;
  • 나무/na-mu = tree;
  • 떨어지다/tteo-reo-ji-da = to fall

Literal meaning: Even monkeys fall from trees.

Similar expression/s: Nobody’s perfect. Everyone makes mistakes.

A person should not be discouraged by a mistake he/she made because even experts can commit errors or can make misjudgments. Use this to comfort a friend who thinks he/she made a terrible mistake.


시작이 반이다 

(shi-ja-gi ban-i-da)

  • 시작/shi-jak = start, beginning;
  • 반/ban = half;

Literal meaning: Beginning is the half.

Similar expression/s: Well begun is half done. Beginning is the hardest step.

This proverb can be used to encourage somebody who might be scared or lazy to start a task because it seems hard or the entire experience seems daunting. Once that person starts doing it, it will eventually become easier and things will move forward to completion.


남의 떡이 보인다

(nam-ui tteo-gi deo keo bo-in-da)

  • 남/nam = person;
  • 떡/tteok = rice cake;
  • 더/deo = more;
  • 크다/keu-da = to be big;
  • 보이다/bo-i-da = to be seen

Literal meaning: Other people’s rice cakes look bigger.

Similar expression/s: The grass is greener on the other side (of the fence).

This proverb refers to people’s way of thinking that other people’s possession or situation is better than their own, even when they are not.

Illustration by Eggbun.
수박 핥기

(su-bak geot halk-ki)

  • 수박/su-bak = watermelon;
  • 겉/geot = surface;
  • 핥다/halt-ta = to lick

Literal meaning: Licking the skin of a watermelon

Similar expression/s: Scratching the surface

Licking the skin of a watermelon (or any unpeeled fruit, for that matter) does not give anyone a good impression of the taste and texture of the actual fruit. This proverb means doing something superficially or to not dig deeper in an observation/investigation. It can also mean, to barely start doing something.

More Proverbs

My next set of proverbs were used in Episode 102 of JTBC’s “Please Take Care of My Refrigerator” (냉장고를 부탁해/naeng-jang-go-reul bu-tak-hae), with guests Jackson Wang (Got7) and Henry (Super Junior M). This show is one of my personal favorites because it combines entertaining interviews with Korean celebrities and food made by Korea’s amazing celebrity chefs!!! The hosts don’t always quiz the guests on Korean proverbs, but seeing as both Jackson and Henry are foreigners, they wanted to know how deep their knowledge of the Korean language is. Notice the first 3 proverbs involve food in it. 🙂


바늘 도독이 도독 된다

(ba-neul do-dok-i so do-dok dwen-da)

  • 바늘/ba-neul = pin, needle;
  • 도독/do-dok = thief;
  • 소/so = cow;
  • 되다/dwe-da = to become

Literal meaning: A needle thief becomes a cow thief.

Similar expression/s: He that steals an egg will steal an ox.

This expression suggests that a person who commits small misdeeds will probably commit bigger misdeeds. Use this to warn someone about a dishonest person.


미운 하나 준다

(mi-un nom tteok ha-na deo jun-da)

  • 밉다/mip-da = to hate;
  • 놈/nom = (informal) person, guy;
  • 떡/tteok = rice cake;
  • 하나/ha-na = one;
  • 더/deo = more;
  • 주다/ju-da = to give

Literal meaning: To the person you hate, give one more piece of rice cake.

Similar expression/s: Kill your enemy with kindness.

Showing kindness to someone who is mean towards you makes you appear to be the better person. That person will eventually go away (or become nicer, or eventually “lose”) because he cannot make a fight if it is just him throwing punches.


누워서 먹기

(nu-wo-seo tteok meog-ki)

  • 눕다/nup-da = to lie down;
  • 떡/tteok = rice cake;
  • 먹다/meok-da = to eat

Literal meaning: Eating rice cake while lying down

Similar expression/s: Piece of cake. As easy as pie.

I don’t think this is a proverb but an idiom instead. But since Jackson mentioned it in the video clip, I thought I’d throw this in as a bonus. If something is so easy that it doesn’t take much effort to do, you can use this expression.


친구 따라 강남 간다

(ching-gu tta-ra gang-nam kan-da)

  • 친구/ching-gu = friend;
  • 따라하다/ tta-ra-ha-da = to follow, to imitate;
  • 강남/Gang-nam = a well-known district in Seoul;
  • 가다/ka-da = to go

Literal meaning: One goes to Gangnam following one’s friend.

Similar expression/s: Follow the herd/crowd.

This means following the trend or giving in to peer pressure. This can be used to describe someone who does not use his/her personal judgment and just does what everyone else is doing.

Even More Proverbs

My last set of proverbs comes from this episode of “Dad, Where Are We Going?” (아빠! 어디가?, Ap-pa eo-di-ga?), where the fathers are teaching the children Korean proverbs for the first time. In this clip, Vibe singer Yoon Minsoo is teaching his son, Hoo, and his friend Jia. Watch the video to see how Minsoo try to teach the concept to young children. 🙂


찍어 넘어가는 나무 없다

(yeol beon jjik-eo an neom-eo-ga-neun na-mu eob-ta)

  • 열/yeol = ten;
  • 번/beon = counter, times;
  • 찍다/jjik-da = to strike; to hit;
  • 안/an = adverb, not;
  • 넘어가다/neom-eo-ga-da = to fall over, to fall into;
  • 나무/na-mu = tree;
  • 없다/eop-ta = to not exist

Literal meaning: After striking it ten times, there is no tree that won’t fall.

Similar expression/s: Little strokes fell great oaks. There nothing you can’t do if you keep at it long enough.

Even when a task seems hard to do, if you keep putting in small efforts, then you will eventually achieve your goal. Try and try until you succeed!


배보다 배꼽이 크다

(bae-bo-da ba-ggop-i deo keu-da)

  • 배/bae = stomach, belly;
  • -보다/bo-da = comparison suffix, “than”;
  • 배꼽/bae-ggop = belly-button;
  • 더/deo = more;
  • 크다/keu-da = to be big

Literal meaning: The belly-button is bigger than the belly.

Similar expression/s: It is (a case of) the tail wagging the dog.

This proverb is used to describe a situation where in a minor object controls the major object, and therefore suggests that the roles be reversed. I think Appa Minsoo gave a bit confusing explanation to Hoo and Jia. Eggbun also has this in their Culture Notes and their examples is: Buying a book (major object) from an online store but its shipping (minor object) costs more than the price of the book!

And that’s it for now

There’s actually more proverbs I learned recently thanks to Eggbun and other Korean variety quiz programs, but perhaps I can share them in another article!

How many of these Korean proverbs are familiar to you? Which one is your favorite? Maybe try using them in actual conversation with friends! You might surprise them! Feel free to share your comments below. Have a fun learning, everyone! 🙂

2 thoughts on “Learning Korean Proverbs 속담

  • September 18, 2017 at 10:21 am

    Cute posting. 도독/do-dok = thief. Actually not 도독. 도둑 is right word. dodook

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