When you watch Korean historical dramas (known as “사극”, Sageuk), you’ll hear lots of archaic Korean words and phrases that you wouldn’t normally hear in modern dramas.
Many of the terms are old-fashioned or of Chinese origin, so you won’t find them in your handy pocket Korean-English dictionaries.
Here are some of the Korean words in historical dramas you should know!
1. 전하 / 마마 [jeon-ha / ma-ma]
Your Majesty / Royal Highness
These phrases are used to address the royals. When you watch Korean historical dramas, you’ll often hear people addressing the king as “전하” (“jeonha”) and the Queen as “대비마마” (“daebi-mama”). “폐하” (“Pyeha”) is another common way of saying “Your Majesty.”
2. 왕비 / 대비 [wang-bi / dae-bi]
Queen / Queen Dowager
“왕비” (“Wangbi”) denotes a current wife of the king, whereas “대비” (“Daebi”) is a Queen Dowager, the wife of a deceased king.
In the English subtitles of the dramas, you may see the Queen Dowager addressed as “Queen Mother” because she is usually the mother of the current king. If a king is too young to ascend the throne, the Queen Mother often acts as ruler in his place.
3. 왕세자 [wang-se-ja]
The Crown Prince is the oldest son of the king who will someday ascend the throne. He is called “원자” (“Wonja”) before he officially takes up the title of “왕세자” (“Wangseja”).
This title is often shortened to just “세자” (“seja”) and coupled with “저하” (“jeoha”), which means “His Royal Highness” to make the often-heard title “세자저하” (“seja-jeoha”).
4. 대군 [dae-gun]
There can only be one Crown Prince, so the king’s other sons, whose mother is a Queen are called “대군” (“daegun”), Grand Prince. They are often addressed with the term “대감” “daegam”), which means “His Excellency.”
5. 누이 / 오라버니 [Nu-i / o-ra-beo-ni]
Older sister / brother
You may be familiar with the honorifics “noona” (which a boy uses to address an older girl) and “oppa” (used by girl to address an older boy), but in 사극, Saeguk you’ll hear the old-fashioned term, “누이” (nu-i) and “오라버니” (“orabeoni”).
6. 만세 [man-se]
“만세!” is a triumphant exclamation that basically means “hurrah!” The literal meaning is “ten thousand years” (만 means “ten thousand”), and it was used to wish the King a long life. That’s why when you watch historical K-Dramas, you’ll hear people shout “manse, manse, manmanse!” when a new King ascends the throne.
7. 성은이 망극하옵니다 [seong-eun-i mang-geuk-ha-omnida]
Your grace is immeasurable
This phrase is almost always addressed to the king or other sovereign ruler by a subject, in response to some words of praise or a gift or promotion. It’s often translated in the subtitles as just “Thank you”, but “Your grace is immeasurable” is more accurate.
It’s also used as an apology to the king, but basically, the subject is thanking the king for being generous and not punishing him for whatever he did wrong.
This phrase is mostly said without the first bit “seongeuni”, which refers to “grace” or “royal favor”. Usually, they just say “mangguekhaomnida”, followed by “전하” (jeonha), “Your Majesty”.
8. 난장형 [nan-jang-hyeong]
“난장형” is a common punishment given to criminals for crimes that don’t warrant an automatic death sentence. The criminal will be beaten with sticks, often wrapped in a straw mat.
The number of hits could vary greatly depending on the severity of the crime. Harsh sentences of 30-50 hits often resulted in death from internal injuries.
9. 화랑 [hwa-rang]
“화랑” (the original ‘flower boys’) were a group of young men in the Silla period who were trained in culture, martial arts, and various scholarly pursuits. They are also known for being well-groomed (and good-looking), as portrayed by dramas like “Hwarang”.
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10. 왕자 / 군 [wang-ja / -gun]
Sons born to the king and a concubine, as well as the sons of Grand Princes, are called “군” (“gun”). They’re addressed as “대감” (“daegam”), “His Excellency”. These princes, as well as Grand Princes, are simply called “왕자” (“wangja”) until they are old enough for the title.
11. 왕명 / 고명 [wang-myeong / go-myeong]
This is the last proclamation that the king delivers before dying. It’s his will and succession edict where he will name the person to take his place on the throne.
12. 기생 [gi-saeng]
In the Joseon Dynasty, a “기생” refers to a female entertainer and courtesan. Many were trained in art, music, literature and medicine.
The well educated ones served in the royal palace and entertained noble men.
Technically, they were ‘owned’ by the provincial governments, which registered them. So, any daughters born to a gisaeng were required to become one in turn.
Do you know any other interesting Sageuk words or phrases? Let us know in the comments below!