I recently had a pretty cool discussion about proverbs with a Korean acquaintance. I always loved proverbs and idioms in any language since I find that they reveal so much about a country’s culture. For example, think about how many proverbs and idioms there are about bread in Western culture. To be the breadwinner, our daily bread, to be one’s bread and butter, to make bread while the oven is hot, etc. Naturally, in Korean these proverbs are about rice, which like bread in the Western world, traditionally has been the main food staple. Bread and butter, metaphorically known as one’s main source of income, in Korean becomes 밥줄 one’s rice line.

Anyway, during our conversation, the topic shifted to proverbs in our respective languages, which made me think of some cool Danish examples. One of my favorites is “First one to the mill is the first to grind”, which is the equivalent of “It’s the early bird that catches the worm”.

I also like “There is no need to cross the river to fetch water.” This is used when people do a simple task in an overly complicated manner.

This exchange of proverbs in Danish/English and Korean turned out to be so much fun. In talking about all these proverbs, I was also reminded of so many of my favorite Korean proverbs that I have learned over the years and I thought I’d share a few of them with you here (with English translations, of course).

사공이 많으면 배가 산으로 간다 Too many boatmen steer the ship up the mountain (English equivalent: Too many cooks spoil the soup)

개똥도 약에 쓰려면 없다 You can’t find even a dog turd when you really need it (No real English equivalent but this expression is commonly used when you suddenly need something but can’t find it. Like when you usually place hair bands all over but can find one in the moment you really need one.)

소를 잃고 외양간 고친다 Repairing the barn after the cow has escaped. (English equivalent: Locking the stable door after the horse has bolted).

바늘 가는 데 실 간다 Where the needle goes the thread follows. Used about two people who are inseparable.

I also learned a couple of new Korean expressions that I plan to use at the earliest opportune moment:

내로남불. Any guesses? From looking at it resembles a four-character Chinese proverb (사자성어), which are so frequent in Korean. It’s not though. It’s slang from 내가 하면 로맨스 남이 하면 불륜, literally meaning “for me it’s romance, for others it’s adultery”. The English equivalent would be either to have double standards or “rules for thee, not for me”.

거지 발싸개 같다 To look like a homeless beggar’s socks. In English that would be to look like crap. Can be said when looking in the mirror (most likely in the morning) or when commenting on others’ appearance (please don’s say it too loud though).

So, there you have a few Korean proverbs and expressions. Do you have a favorite proverb or expression in Korean or any other language?


  1. love these! Thanks~!
    I really like 십시일반 (lit) ten spoons in equal to one bowl. (eng eq) many hands make light work.
    매도 먼저 맞는개 낫다 (L)I will get a spanking first to get it over with. (E) take your lumps.
    길고 짧은 것은 대어 보아야 안다 (L) you cant guess the length until you hold it up to a ruler. (E) you will never know until you try
    몸에 좋은 약은 입에 쓰다 (L) the best medicine has a bitter taste.
    양손의 떡 (L) 떡 is in both hands (E) both are good options
    앓던 이가 빠진 것 같다(L) the hardest part is over (E) it is all downhill from here (used in the positive way)

    Liked by 1 person

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