Extended Glossary
Glossary: Noona
by | June 26, 2010 | 105 Comments

Go Hyun-jung and Chun Jung-myung in What’s Up, Fox

Today’s Korean word of the day is: Noona. Got a cheeky younger man in your life? Turns out there’s a reason he calls you what he does. Notorious noona-killers Chun Jung-myung and Kim Bum help give us a lesson on the ins and outs of the Korean language, and the pitfalls of dating a noona.

Traditionally, noona is what a boy calls his older sister, from childhood all the way through adulthood. My parents and their siblings still call each other noona and oppa, and will continue to do so till they’re in their nineties.

It’s also a term indicating friendship, or an informality between kids whose families are really close, as in the above example, What’s Up, Fox. Between kids, noona is simply something for a boy to call a girl who is older than him. But noona can also be used between adult friends, especially if the age gap is bigger and the relationship is close, as opposed to the more formal “Proper-name-sshi.” It’s also a more familiar way to address a colleague, if “sunbae” is too formal, like the way actors address on-set stylists as “coordi-noona” (an amalgamation of coordinator and noona).

As with oppa, noona does carry with it some appeal and some power; I know that men are powerless to the “oppa,” but I instantly light up when someone calls me noona. While it doesn’t carry the same loaded meaning, it does convey a closeness and an informality, while instantly triggering my nurturing side. All in the power of a word.

Gong Hyo-jin and Gong Yoo in Biscuit Teacher Star Candy

But noona doesn’t have the same use in the romantic realm as oppa; it doesn’t have the same connotation as its counterpart, because the gender roles are reversed. The trend has been steadily growing for the older-woman-younger-man couple, and socially, it’s become more and more accepted and commonplace in Korea. We’ve seen the trend in a whole slew of dramas in the last five years, like My Name is Kim Sam-soon, and Biscuit Teacher Star Candy, to name a few. And while those traditional age-relations can be flipped, and the gap widened, the gender roles cannot. That would upset the balance of like, the fabric of existence in Korea.

So when a guy starts a romantic relationship with a noona, he tends to drop the word, as a decisive way to assert himself as a man, or more importantly, her romantic equal. In What’s Up, Fox, Chul-soo has called his older sister’s friend Byung-hee, “noona” his whole life. They grew up together like family, and she jokes about changing his diapers. But the minute she accepts him as a romantic partner, he drops the noona in favor of “Byung-hee ya” and “baby.”

Kim Bum and Park Jin-hee in The Woman Who Still Wants to Marry

The Woman Who Still Wants to Marry is a great example of the conscious avoidance of the word noona, to keep from falling into the dreaded friend zone. Min-jae refuses to call the ten-years-older Shin-young “noona,” preferring to call her “Shin-young-sshi,” which is what a man her age would normally do. Only when she breaks up with him does he admit defeat by the utterance of one heartbreaking word: noona.

Noona, then, becomes a stand-in for “platonic,” which is the total opposite of how “oppa” gets appropriated. Why is Korean so complicated? You’re asking the wrong person. But it’s interesting (at least to me) that the social hierarchy and rules of social conduct are built into the language itself. What you call someone is tantamount to where you stand, and for Koreans, you always need to know where you stand. So when you meet someone and the first question you get is: How old are you, it’s not anything personal—they just need to know how to address you.

There’s also a bad boy element to the dropping of noona, as it goes against the ‘proper’ social order. Which would explain the appeal. Who doesn’t like a badass? Frankly, I love it when a guy calls me noona. It’s beyond adorable. But on the flipside, if I were dating someone younger than me, I’d find it totally hot if he asserted his boyfriend status by cutting out the noona and treating me as an equal. Whatchoo gonna do? I love a rule-breaker.

As far as dramas go, the intricacies of what the characters call each other at different points in the relationship—to me, that’s the good stuff: the nuances of language and culture that breathe life into the fantastical situation of dating a rockstar ten years your junior.

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105 Comments from the Beanut Gallery
  1. javabeans

    Oh, noona-killers… be still my heart!

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  2. kez

    ditto!
    ;)

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  3. Celest

    Great examples of how “noonas” are typically written up in kdrama world. I recognized all the examples except for Biscuit Teacher Star Candy. huh. what a weird name… I’m gonna have to look that up. I liked you pointed out that girls can affectionately call their boyfriends oppas but the double standard persist for guys. But then again, I would find it kind of awkward if my younger boyfriend would call me “noona”…not cute at all imo.

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  4. yoyo

    thanks for all the definitions and references, i’ll keep it in mind when i come face to face with a young and fresh idol that has fallen hopelessly in love with me :D

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  5. Angela

    These are so interesting!! Thank you. ^_^

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  6. kay

    celest, you should watch Biscuit Teacher Star Candy! it’s really cute and funny. plus gong yoo’s in it. HELLLLLLLO! haha

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  7. oh! tht! chick!

    and there are waaaay toooooo many noona killers out there these days….and tht coming from a 24 year old says something doesn’t it? its literally cradle robbing considering how much younger and younger the actors/idols are these days? makes me wonder abt child labour laws in k-land!

    as for the cultural connotation behind noona and oppa…i really dont know if its a healthy one or not whether i should be disappointed or just accept as it is and move on….lool just shows how complicated gender issues are eh?

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  8. doozy

    Min-Jae’s noona is the most memorable use of the word, hands down.

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  9. Startulle

    korea culture is fascinating………

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  10. 10 Porcelain

    Thanks for the lovely noona version!!!
    Aww… My Lovely Samsoon, What’s up Fox and Biscuit Teacher Star Candy bring back so much memories… I remember in What’s up Fox, the process of deciding what to call Byung Hee was so cute, she was all like, “I know I am adorable but baby?” And Chun Jung-myung puppy face kill me… so damn adorable!!!

    And there is no Lee Seung Gi and Shinee in this post! Contrarary to what we might expect…

    In a lot of K-pop and variety, I think this noona effect is more evident I guess…

    More than once I saw idol boy groups go on shows and when they just “aegyo” a “noona” to the lady MC, she will all like jelly… that is hilarious…

    I guess when a boy stop calling an older girl he likes as noona is when he wants to stand equals as love partner with the girl… and sometimes I watch a whole drama just to get to that bit ^O^

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  11. 11 Lahlita

    Thanks for the post, Girlfriday! I knew that Min-jae was going to make an appearance, because he’s the ultimate noona-killer. It’s interesting that “noona” doesn’t get afforded the same romantic implications as “oppa.” But then you said that gender roles cannot be reversed. That would explain why in these noona/noona-killer romances, even thought the woman is older, a career-oriented, intelligent being, she spends the first few episodes freaking out and running away from the (admittedly gorgeous) man-child who pretty much puts his foot down and tells her what’s what. That they will be getting their hot date on and she needs to deal.

    @ Girlfriday : Are you aware of any older women/younger men dramas where the woman was the pursuer, or at least equally eager in the beginning? Or would that upset the balance of like, the fabric of existence in Korea? :-)

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  12. 12 Alison

    CJM is so yummy in that pic. chul soo ah~

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  13. 13 tombrady

    @ porcelain: Totally agree with you. Lee Seung Gi and SHINee (all of them) are total noona-killers! ROFL. I like SHINee the way they are and will rue the day SM Ent finally decides to go for a sexy look like most idol groups.

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  14. 14 nycgrl

    Uggh you had to do it. Put a pict of CJM. What a cutiepie.

    He has totally become my crush this year after watching CU and Goodbye Solo–though strangely not in What’s Up Fox though maybe its time for a rewatch just to double check.

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  15. 15 xiaoSxin

    oh the complexities of the Korean language and culture.. it’s very addicting!!!

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  16. 16 diadda

    whooooo-hoooo What’s Up Fox is my very most favoritest thing on the planet. And in my opinion that new boy band “infinite” is going to be serious noona killers.

    N a side note, my friend who is male and 6months older than me teases me by calling me noona. I tried correcting him, instead he thinks its funny to see me flustered.

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  17. 17 sra

    What about the noona equivalent to the OPW?

    My “little brother” yells “NOOONAAAAAAAA!”, only when he wants something (my food, the remote, a ride, my car, getting out of washing the dishes, money . . . or talking his way out of something).

    Oh, if my life were only a kdrama, I’d have a bunch of adoring dongsaengs I could boss around calling me “noona” all the time.

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  18. 18 eiko

    hmmmm…..okay, so in Oh My Lady we had Min Woo calling KaeHwa “ahjumma” and in My Country Calls….Go JinHyuk calls Oh HaNa…. Oh HaNasshi!!!!!

    ????

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  19. 19 mzpakipot

    thanks for this girlfriday and javabeans! after u mentioned My Name is Kim Sam Soon, when Ji-hyun called Sam Soon NooNim, is that really offensive?

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  20. 20 Emi

    I like how in the drama My Country Calls (which I really wish was recapped here ^^) when Oh Ha Na is working under cover, and is caught talking with her partner (who is at least 7 years older than her) by the person she’s spying on, she hastily makes up an identity for her partner, introducing him as her YOUNGER cousin (which, given how old he looks, is hilarious) and in order to play along, the partner instantly has to start calling her ‘noona’. He looks so disgruntled every time he has to act like he’s younger, and show her some noona respect XD

    (My country Calls is my favorite show this season, even moreso than Coffee House~ it’s hilarious, and Ryu Jin as Han Do Hoon totally steals every scene <3 )

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  21. 21 Goldie

    In “Personal Taste” it was funny that No Sang Joon (Jin Ho’s friend) called Lee Young Sun (Kae In’s friend) while He pretend to be gay that “Noo na” as well ^^

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  22. 22 okdubu

    ” Frankly, I love it when a guy calls me noona. It’s beyond adorable. But on the flipside, if I were dating someone younger than me, I’d find it totally hot if he asserted his boyfriend status by cutting out the noona and treating me as an equal. ”

    THIS THIS THIS :D

    lol at all of us expecting an lee seungki or shinee mention

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  23. 23 maria

    @ lahlita: hmm.. dal ja’s spring? ..can’t remember properly though. teehee :)

    @girlfriday: thank you! “noona” is just way more elusive that “oppa”, and i’m actually jonesing to re-read some of your TWWSWTM recaps again now, just to see if it rings a more intense emotional tone with me with the language aspect explained (not that it didn’t the first time) lol.

    it is interesting to note how, as you say, the the culture is weaved in such a way that the social hierarchy and rules of social conduct are built into the language itself, because the culture DOES emphasize standing.
    and it rings a very personal bell for me– i think that the intricacy and complexity of situation borne of these levels would be VERY apparent to a person with a life like mine, just because… in chronos, i know where i stand, fine. but where i stand in this country? in this society? in this life? …??? SIMPLY TO BE ADDRESSED requires that i know where i am, lest that i leave it up to the people around me to just constantly tell me instead. i don’t know if i’m so comfortable with that. if i’m going to be talked down to, talked up to, talked to like an equal, i’d like to not be caught off guard about it, thankyouverymuch.
    but i would be caught off guard nonetheless, though, unless i can have the “where i stand” issues ironed out for myself. still: i can imagine that this floating feeling i have is not mine alone. nor do i think that korean nationals themselves are exempt from it. so just for that— they have my… sympathy? interest? pledge of allegiance? lol

    you are right though, girlfriday, the intricacies do present an appeal in some respects. the romantic air that comes with being caught off guard by a reference that gives away a regard higher or lower than what you expect/ desire certainly makes for good drama.
    but do i want it applied to my life whole? eep.

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  24. 24 shelly

    @ tombrady i too was expecting a SHINee mention XD
    the quintessential noona killers even among idol groups….. yes i will also rue the day they go “sexy.” UNNECESSARY SME.

    at any rate. CJM is so CUTEEEE and i tried really hard to hate his wimpy character in CS, but then he smiled. so i failed miserably…….

    and i need to see kim bum in another drama. now. please? pretty please? with a cherry on top? no? fine. >.<

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  25. 25 muzik130

    Whoa your really fast! haha I wasnt expecting this till tomorrow…. Thank you! Your the best girlfriday! oh and welcome aboard! ^-^

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  26. 26 supah

    Kim Bum er, no. But Song-joong-ki and Kim Soo-hyun anytime.

    @okdubu
    Lulz at Shinee mention — those three words: ‘noona nomu yeppo’ are pure wonderfulness. *faints*
    Oh aga, this yeppo noona will happily cook you warm meals, knit your sweaters, bleach your whites and give you warm and encouraging pats on back, even… hold your hand. ;)

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  27. 27 Snikki

    What’s the difference between “name-ya” and “name-sshi”? And both gender can use it, right?

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  28. 28 whateva

    hi, thanks for the insight.

    btw, what does “noonim” means? i’ve heard a male singer called an actress, “noonim” before.

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  29. 29 annieee

    thank you so much girlfriday, for the awesome write-up!

    but im curious if “noona” is always assumed to be platonic, b/c if i remember correctly, in 9 end 2 outs, nan-hee’s younger boyfriend continues to call her noona despite them being in a serious relationship and even wanting to get married. so is there sometimes a certain kind of romantic connotation with “noona”?

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  30. 30 Carina

    @28

    “Noonim” is a more formal version of Noona; pays more respect but also speaks of greater distance. It’s the same “nim” you will hear affixed to titles if you listen closely (and you won’t have to listen long since Kdramas love their corporate settings XD).

    There’s alose “Hyungnim”, nim added to hyung (boy’s older brother). Gangster bosses seem to be called that a lot.

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  31. 31 pickles

    I’m really digging this whole glossary idea! Hahaha, thanks so much! :) yeah, I get this thrill when my younger guy friends call me noona! I went on an exhange programme in china once and I got acquainted with some of the Korean exchange students too. At first, they addressed me by name. But after a while some of the guys (who are only a year younger) called me noona! Omg, I felt inexplicably happy hearing that! I thought it would make me feel old, but no! Hahaha, I wish I had a little brother who would call me noona all the time! (like how I call my older sis unni. Heh.)

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  32. 32 mellowyel

    @ Goldie

    actually, the word he used was “unnie” which as far as I know (non-Korean speaker, correct me if I’m wrong) is used by a female speaking to another female who is older than she, and whom she’s close with. i think in that case Sangjoon called her “unnie” because since he was pretending to be gay, their relationship was akin to one between two girlfriends (since in Korea gay=feminine). also, i know two female friends who take Korean class together, and the younger one calls the older one “unnie”

    Girlfriday, thanks so much for this! i think Korean is such an interesting language… I might pick it up one of these days

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  33. 33 dodo

    What’s up fox is a great drama. I can’t help but fall in love with Go Huyn Jung. I understand and admire the chemistry between Go Huyn Jung & Chun Muyng Huyn. I like Biscuit teacher and Hardtack candy too but I hate Still, marry me a lot. I can’t hep but feel digusting at the chemistry and at Park Jin Hee >..<

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  34. 34 Tammu

    Loved this article. It took me a bit to figure out how to get the full text since I didn’t see a “Click here to continue reading” link, but I’m glad I figured it out in the end since the discussion on noona is super interesting.

    Looking forward to more glossary entries!

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  35. 35 girlfriday

    @ 11 Lahlita: I would consider Sam-soon to be an equal-starter, in their real romance, not their contract one.

    @17 sra: There isn’t a patented equivalent to the OPW, but pretty much “Nooonaaaaaaaaa!” in a long, drawn-out whine gets me every time. Pouty lips get extra points.

    @27 Snikki: We’ll address those in more length in the future, but “name-ya” is familiar, informal speech, while “name-sshi” is proper, and formal. The difference between close friends and adult colleagues, for example. And yes, it’s gender-neutral.

    @29 annieee: I haven’t caught 9n2 yet, so I can’t give a specific answer for that case. But in general, noona can be teasingly used in a larger romantic context, but isn’t commonly used seriously in the same way that oppa would be used. There are Korean married couples who continue to use oppa (as the main way to call your husband, not just as a cute OPW weapon), while noona would never be appropriated in the same way.

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  36. 36 Becky

    Being called Noona makes me all warm and fuzzy. And it also makes me tired and broke cause my cousins take advantage of my weakness. 

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  37. 37 Shar

    Great post :) hahaha I agree with your feelings about being called noona…and later dropping it when the guy is asserting boyfriend status a la Min-jae!

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  38. 38 therainhouse

    More! More of this glossary type posts.
    Now I understand what it really means.

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  39. 39 Orion

    Noona. Another beautiful korean word. If I had a younger brother or kid call me noona (were I korean), damn it, it would be hard to say no if they asked for something.

    But yes, noona could kill off romance. I guess it’s because of the gender role. Men are supposed to be the in-charge protectors in a relationship so a younger girl calling a guy oppa, even when romance is there, is not that funny. He’s still the “older stronger man”. He’s “higher” in the relationship in terms of responsibility, nurturing and protecting which are usually things a man has to do as his share in a relationship if we look at it from a more traditional (or from a primitive :P) point of view.

    But when we have a younger guy and an older woman, the younger guy needs to “toughen up” to fill in the gap and calling the girl “noona” would just make the gap wider. She’s already probably more mature and responsible and independent and he’s most likely in an inferior position when it comes to all these things like responsibility, social status etc. So in order to climb up to being the “man” in the relationship, he needs to treat the woman not as a wiser older sister figure, but make her feel like she can be more fragile and relaxed with him.

    A guy wants and needs to feel strong and in charge and a woman needs to be able to relax and let go once in a while. So when these roles are balanced in a relationship and if said relationship is a good one ruled by respect and not abusing your role in it (woman trying to control the man or vice versa), then this works really well.

    So it’s not surprising that the “noona” term is dropped in a romantic relationship. It brings the couple closer just like “oppa” does in the age and gender reversed couples. Makes the man feel more in charge in a good, protect and love my woman, way. It also makes the woman feel like she can escape the need to guard herself and struggle to rise to the top in what is a mostly a male-dominated society, that she has to deal with in every day life.

    At least that’s the way I see it. :D

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  40. 40 Vicky

    Very interesting post. Korean is the same as Thai or Vietnamese language, we have to know where we stand in order to talk each other in appropriate way. Living in english speaking country sometime I feel difficult when I want to show respect with someone, eg teacher or older colleague.
    Love to study Korean some day.

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  41. 41 Orion

    Vicky, this happens even between other countries, not just english speaking ones. I’m greek and I moved to Finland in 2005. It was hard to get used to calling people here. In Greece, you call strangers by using plural. It might be a girl my age, but if she was a stranger and I wanted to adress her I’d use “miss”. At least in the very beginning. And if someone’s older then it’s even more common.

    In Finland, they use singular form almost everywhere. Unless it’s someone too fancy like a politician or then someone 65+ years old, they don’t use plural/polite forms much. In fact, if you see let’s say a 45 year old woman in the bus and call her using polite/plural tone, she will probably be offended, thinking you’re calling her old.

    So it’s not about language, but more about culture, customs and how much the age and social status gap matters in each country.

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  42. 42 myron

    i want to be a noona:(

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  43. 43 LadyIgraine

    Haha…I’m a noona myself! I think I’ve come to like younger guys thinking they’re older then me, not realizing they were born a little later than I am, lol!

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  44. 44 Lilian

    This post so reminded me of Lee Seung Gi’s song and the drama Oh My Lady. I don’t remember Sung Min Woo calling her nuna. It was like Gaehwa shi towards the end and ahjumma at first =)

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  45. 45 bjharm

    off topic but Biscuit Teacher Star Candy like Love all around are my most memorable dramas with what disturbs me about Korean drama, that is the casual use of violence. Biscuit Teacher Star Candy the father is a Doctor but still lays in on the son with his golf club {what else} even though as a doctor he must know the many dangers of whacking someone over the head with one. Love all Around it is both how a teacher can get away with caning a girl till she faints, and her mother actually come to say how sorry she was to him that her daughter was such a bother he had to beat her so badly {talk about culture clash, made me sick to my stomach}
    Also as with both, how violence in the family is either accepted or not talked about, that is even if the police are called it basically go away and deal with it yourself..it family matters nothing to do with us approach. Love all around again the ex-husband still seems to think he has the right to take money with force from his ex-wife or drag his daughter off the street so she can clean up his flat….

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  46. 46 myron

    what does OPW mean?

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  47. 47 snow

    fun post! and who can resist chun jung myung when he’s smiling like that in the first picture? XD

    you’re right, though, about the romantic aspect of noona – in “cinderella’s sister”, i just couldn’t take jung woo seriously when he keeps calling eun jo noona while harbouring a torch for her. i know it’s what’s required, but maybe the combination of noona and the bland character meant it didn’t work for me.

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  48. 48 atsirk

    Oh, CJM oppa…I miss you. Too bad I’m not your Noona. LOL…

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  49. 49 djinni

    i swear, you should write a book version of this! i know quite a few people who would buy a “drama slang glossery”. keep up the great work!

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  50. 50 birdscout

    @29 annieee

    In 9E2O, the younger boyfriend does call Nan-hee “noona” but there’s a scene where he expressly states that he will stop calling her “noona” and will start calling her by her name because he wants Nan-hee to take the relationship more seriously, and to see him as an equal romantic partner. However, he often forgets/feels awkward calling her by name, and ends up calling her by the more familiar “noona”. 9E2O was a hilarious, romantic, sweet “best friends as lovers” drama. Highly recommended!

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