Lost In Engrish: Deciphering The World Of Korean English

by Melissa Lang
Busan Haps Magazine

Often perplexing and always good for a chuckle, “Engrish” — the word commonly known for bizarre translations of a foreign language into English — has been seen on apparel and signage around the country for years. Canadian blogger Melissa Lang takes a light-hearted look into the phenomenon.

We have all seen it. That painfully hilarious English slogan you walk by at the corner of your eye. A seemingly inconspicuous t-shirt greets you with, “The growing seriously harms you and others around you” stamped across the front. After your puzzling shopping mission has been completed, you saunter onto the street. A shadow looms over your feet. You innocently look up and your eyes bear witness to a salon sign titled, “UniCumHair.” As a teacher here, you catch glimpses of students wearing shirts such as, “ Touch me, feel me, and love me”. Sound familiar? This is a normal day out in my city of Ulsan, and I’m sure everywhere else in Korea.

Magical Creatures Amongst Us

First and foremost, fascination with mythological creatures runs high. I noticed a t-shirt, “Being a person is getting too complicated, time to be a unicorn.” Perhaps it could be an existential metaphor questioning the meaning of human life? Or maybe being one reflects a form of escape from being oneself? I would want to be a unicorn. Who wouldn’t?

Another favorite was, “Someone told me that I was living in an imaginary world I almost fell off my unicorn.” If you’re already riding on one, then the time has come to reevaluate where you are going in life. And maybe you are exactly where you want to be — riding high on a unicorn. Or maybe I am just thinking too much. There is undeniably a universal hope that magical creatures exist, not just in our dreams, but also in reality to whisk us away from all our problems. Maybe that 100% cotton V-neck is the closest we will get to that…

Honesty Is The Best Policy

While the allure of unicorns garners images of flowers, sunshine and rainbows, Korean-English merchandise still has a sassy underbelly. This type of English makes no apologies and has a take-it-or- leave -it approach.

Some shirts radiate attitude like, “If you want to talk to me, talk to my agency,” and especially this one, “Pissing everywhere isn’t very Chanel.” Donning apparel like that is your way of saying, “talk to the hand.”

Some Korean clothing offer a more pedagogical approach. A lengthy message on the back of a hoodie for instance mediates this tactic for all to see, “Some people may not always tell you how they feel about you, but they will always show you. Pay attention”.

Those are such wise and rational words from a piece of fabric and are emblems of the spoken truth. They have nothing to hide. Korea can be a blunt and honest country. I have had a Korean friend mention to me before, “Wow you look so much better than last time!” While most people would think, “How dare she?” or respond with an “Excuse me?”,  I did not take it personally or to heart. She was very honest but the intention was meant to be a compliment and good-natured. Maybe this sincere outlook transcends through English to attire as well?

It may seem that English permeates much of the clothing here, but surprisingly its popularity in Korea has declined over the years. My co-teacher said that she has seen the use of English decrease in the last two decades. After the Korean War, the nation depended heavily on America for economic aid. But since the 1960’s, the economy has sky-rocketed and consequentially South Koreans don’t need English anymore — now they just want it. Evolving from a necessary economic requirement to an idealized and insatiable consumerist desire.

“Language is the key to the heart of the people.” Ahmed Deedat conveys the importance of communication as a tool for better understanding and getting comfortable with a country’s cultural fabric. South Korea’s whimsical, brash and optimistic sentiments are undeniable when they come out in the wash. The threads of English and Korean culture are undeniably intertwined and show no signs of unraveling. Whether their sentiments are understood, intentional, or not, English branding is open for any interpretation. At the end of a hard day, maybe we can all live the unicorn dream someday.


Melissa Lang is a free-spirited Canadian English teacher in South Korea. Amongst many she has a passion to write, immersing into another culture, and chronicling her experiences from any side of the world. You can read more of her observations of Korean life on her blog ‘Slice of Kimchi’. You can reach her at Melissa@langfamily.ca


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