Extended Glossary
Glossary: Oppa
by | June 26, 2010 | 168 Comments


Was there ever such heartbreaking confusion over the meaning of
the word “oppa” as with these two in Triple?

Perhaps you’ve seen that Glossary link in the menu to the left, languishing in neglect with nary an update. I decided, what better way to update than to expound upon those familiar kdrama terms and concepts in a Glossary Series? Because while longtime drama lovers may know exactly what a chaebol is, why pojangmachas rule, and why makjangs induce eye-rolls, sometimes we toss around these Korean terms freely without explanation. And we suspect (we being myself and girlfriday, of course!) that some people are left in confusion.

Hence: the Dramabeans (Extended) Glossary. First up in this ongoing series is that ubiquitous, loaded term that we see in practically every drama ever: “Oppa.”

Of all the terms in the glossary, oppa may be the most packed-with-extra-meaning-and-therefore-confusion entry. The straight definition is pretty simple — an oppa is what a girl calls her older brother, or an older guy whom she feels somewhat close to — but its application is where we get all tripped up in nuance.

The Types of “Oppa”

(1) The brother. This is the most straightforward use of oppa: the blood relative. This can mean a girl’s sibling or cousin, just as long as he’s male and older. Oddly enough, oppa can even mean one’s twin brother, if he were born ahead of the sister. In You’re Beautiful, Mi-nyeo calls her twin Mi-nam “oppa,” because ostensibly he got a few minutes’ head start in the world.

(2) The older guy. The term oppa can also be extended to guys who are not blood-related, but to whom the girl feels some closeness. When a girl is a young child, this is pretty easy to do — every boy older than you is an oppa.

When the girl starts growing older, however, she has a few more choices for things to call older guys and therefore the use of “oppa” becomes at her discretion. Now she gets to pick whether a guy is close enough to be an oppa — or maybe there’s some distance and sunbae, or his work title, or his name would be more appropriate.

A guy who takes on oppa status to a girl he’s not related to also takes on a few implied responsibilities, like generally watching over her and making sure she doesn’t get into trouble. He’s the one who might introduce her to social drinking — but he’s also the guy who’d better cut her off when she’s had too much. An oppa who takes advantage of his drunk charge isn’t worthy of the title oppa. If the currently popular trope of the cold-on-the-outside, fuzzy-on-the-inside hero can look to Mr. Darcy as its archetype, then the quintessential oppa is surely Mr. Knightley.


My Girl: Not quite an oppa

You might wonder, in My Girl, why does Yoo-rin call Gong-chan that weird formal word oraboni?

Oraboni is an older, formal version of oppa, most often heard in historical dramas. At first Yoo-rin calls Gong-chan by his title — executive director. However, once they assume the ruse that she is his long-lost cousin, she’s family and it’s no longer appropriate to use his business title. She can’t use his name because he’s older and that would be disrespectful. So why doesn’t she use oppa? Well, they’re virtual strangers, and oppa — even in family settings — suggests some level of closeness. And Gong-chan is a cold, distant sort of guy. To preserve that respect but to not appear presumptuous, she uses the more distant, formal oraboni.

Suffice to say that once you’re an adult, the lines get blurry. Add to that the following complication and here’s where things start getting tricky:

(3) The romantic oppa.

Hooo boy, now this is the big one.

A girl often calls her (older) boyfriend “oppa.” I know. It’s weird. It’s just how it is.

So you can imagine that the word now takes on all these added implications. No longer are you just the protective older brother-figure. Now the oppa is the object of romantic affection — the manly man, the stud. You take those earlier connotations of the brother-oppa (respect, guidance) and you add in romantic adulation? It’s a heady combination.

There’s a reason the denizens of the Open Thread have coined the term “Oppa Pout Wiggle,” or “O-P-W.” In short, it’s that whiny, girly, fussy way a girl pouts, “Oppaaaaaaaa” when she wants her boyfriend to do something for her. Personally, I find the oppa-whine immensely annoying, but there’s a reason the guy always crumbles. (Key example: Sung Yuri’s batty eyelashes and oppa-whine to Hyun Bin in Snow Queen. Also known as Samsooki’s kryptonite. There’s a particularly robust discussion about the O-P-W in Open Thread #81.)

Here’s an explanation in the words of Min-ae of 2006’s Soulmate:

 
The Application (and Complications) of “Oppa”

When a relationship is clear-cut, things are simple. But in kdrama-land, things are never clear-cut and one relationship always wants to be another kind of relationship. Hence all the blurry lines.

Take Triple. Haru (Min Hyo-rin) uses oppa with Hwal (Lee Jung-jae), her ex-stepbrother from childhood. They haven’t seen each other in years but when they reconnect, he’s still her oppa.

She also uses oppa with his buddy Hyun-tae (Yoon Kye-sang) — but why does she use “ajusshi” with a third friend Hae-yoon (Lee Seon-kyun), when they’re all the same age? (Ajusshi is used with older men.) Well, Hyun-tae is goofy, fun, and young at heart — oppa seems fitting. Hae-yoon is much more professional and acts like a real grown-up, so he gets the ajusshi treatment. Note that when Haru later switches to calling him oppa, he LOVES it. It makes him feel younger, plus it’s much cooler to be an oppa than a crotchety ol’ ajusshi.

There’s a scene in Triple (Episode 3) when the adorable Song Joong-ki, who has a crush on Haru, is miffed with her. She apologizes, calling him oppa, and immediately his attitude drops — he turns into a giddy, excitable boy. She doesn’t mean it flirtatiously, but it suggests that romantic vibe he so wants with her.

And then, another wrench is thrown into the works when Haru starts to develop feelings for Hwal — meaning that he starts to encompass all THREE meanings of oppa.


Two very different kinds of oppas: Cinderella’s Sister and Bad Guy

This romantic-platonic complication runs both ways. In the case of Song Joong-ki above, he wants that “oppa” usage to cross the divide from platonic into romantic. In an opposite scenario, a girl may desperately want to advance to the romantic stage with her oppa, but he sees her in a purely sisterly light. For instance, Cinderella’s Sister: Hyo-sun uses oppa readily with Ki-hoon, as she looks up to him and adores the ground he walks on. He merely thinks of her as a sister, but contrast that with Eun-jo. Could you imagine the reaction she’d get if Eun-jo ever tried to call Ki-hoon oppa? I’m guessing that would be the first and last time, since he’d be dead from shock.

In Coffee Prince, confusion about Eun-chan’s (Yoon Eun-hye) gender is exacerbated by her sister teasingly calling her oppa. Eun-chan already looks like a guy, so when her cute younger sister goes around calling her oppa (instead of the word for sister), it’s no surprise that Min-yup assumes that lady’s a dude.

In Que Sera Sera, Hye-rin calls Joon-hyuk oppa. They’re not related, but he was raised as her brother. As adults, the two have a secret affair, and you get the sense that Hye-rin relishes calling him oppa, which sounds like one meaning of the word but is spoken intending the other. (Also: WTF kdramas and your obsession with faux-incest?)

In the recent Bad Guy, 20-year-old Mo-nae has taken a liking to Gun-wook (Kim Nam-gil). Before she knows his name, there’s enough of a tangible age gap that she has to call him “ajusshi”… but after they bump into each other a few times and are on speaking terms, she asks for his name, and immediately switches to “Gun-wook oppa.” And now that she is dating him, she uses oppa freely.

Basically, the rule of thumb is: the closer you are, the more you can break the rules and the more you can use oppa.

In conclusion?

Oppa is a word with power. Don’t abuse it!

 

 
To cap things off, here’s the 2000 pop song “Oppa,” as sung by Wax and featuring a young Ha Ji-won. The song pretty much encapsulates the whole oppa dilemma:

I liked that simple, casual vibe
I just thought of you as a good person
But what’s up with this? I keep feeling you as a man
I must be in love with you

Oppa, only look at me.
Are you so busy?
It hurts my feelings
Why don’t you understand how I feel?
Oppa, why are you looking at her?
See, she’s bad
Look, take me now
Take me now

Why won’t you see me as a woman?
Why do you keep saying it can’t work?
Look at other couples, they all start off as oppa
In the end they love and live happily

Next up: girlfriday defines noona.

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168 Comments from the Beanut Gallery
  1. aX

    Oh, informative! :)

    I can’t wait for the noona part. :D

  2. Sere

    Love this entry. I already knew all the nuances of “Oppa”, but reading about them was great. I esp appreciated the clips and all the examples. It felt like going down memory lane! Hee.

    Thank you guys!

  3. Free

    Yes, your assumption is correct. We non-Koreans may not know the meaning of all these words even if we have been watching K-drama for a long period of time. Thanks for the information plus illustrations! Look forward to the “noona” piece.
    thanks again, really love your site !

  4. gia

    same for ajusshi

  5. Isabella

    This is a great entry! I remember when I first started watching Kdramas a lot of subbing teams did not define these titles (oppa, noona etc) and it took me quite a while to figure out the meaning and different applications of them. Loved the examples ^^ Great read!

  6. indigowine

    Hahahahahaha… The first and the last time for Ki Hoon to hear Eun Jo calling him oppa, since he’d be dead from shock??? SO TRUE!!!

  7. Orion

    Ahaha. Awesome disctionary for confused souls. And we got lots more to go. Noona, yeodongsaeng/namdongsaeng, unni etc etc.

    I used to watch korean movies a few years back and I was confused. They kept using their names on the subtitles, but I never heard them call each other’s name! After I started watching more stuff, I realized they were using all these terms.

    It was nice to finally crack the Mystery of the Missing Names. XD

    Can’t wait for “noona”. :D

  8. gailT

    I love this new series! very informative and full of JB quotables.

    “Could you imagine the reaction she’d get if Eun-jo ever tried to call Ki-hoon oppa? I’m guessing that would be the first and last time, since he’d be dead from shock.” i would have loved to see this one. *sigh* CU, I loved and despised you at the same time…

    ROFL at the O-P-W. Sooo true. And thanks for the Soulmate clip.

    How about if the girl is miffed? Which dramas took advantage of “oppa” the other way? Like she should be calling him “oppa” but she’s trying to punish him so she’s not…

  9. CoffeeLove

    Delightful and informative! yey for more of this coming! This stuff is so engrossing. . . and here I thought I’d be rid of my drama addiction after three years!

  10. 10 yoyo

    hahahaha “WTF kdramas and your obsession with faux-incest?” Thanks for elaborating on the term “oppa”. I’ve wanted to call my older classmates that for so long, but alas I live in a world of non-Koreans. The risk of awkward “WTF”s is too much too handle -_-

  11. 11 kaedejun

    wow – this is amazing!! keep up more posts of these!!! people should read these (especially those who don’t know korean culture and yet watch kdramas) because they’re so helpful!!!

    loved the soulmate video! hahaa!

  12. 12 Ervina

    Great way of putting things. I always love the way you write!

  13. 13 Keylye

    Watching the mv for Wax’s Oppa made me think of Chae Rim’s version in Oh! My Lady. I laughed so hard when she sang off key.

    I’m excited for these extended glossary entries. I’ve been around kdramas enough to have most of the terms figured out, but it’s nice to have refreshers. Plus, your explanations are fun reads. ^_^ Thanks!

    • 13.1 Shereen

      i thought of the same from Oh My Lady!

  14. 14 nileey

    thanks for sharing!

  15. 15 Nhu

    Hahahaha.

    This was both informative and hilariously entertaining. I think I’ll like this new feature. Can’t wait for noona!!!

    I suspect the faux-incest obsession can be traced back to Winter Sonata.

  16. 16 six

    I have a question, in My girl, does cousin really can’t get married or it’s only not encourage by both family?

    I guess after this, you will explain about NOONA?^_^

  17. 17 Samira

    This song by WAX remember me of Chae Rim singing it so horribly on Oh My Lady. Si Won was horrified, this scene is so funny lol

  18. 18 Kobe

    To illustrate just how powerful the word Oppa is, let me say this:

    I haven’t watched a Korean drama to completion for almost 2 years now, mainly because I find k-dramas have become quite stagnant in recent years with very little creativity and innovation, but if there’s anything that can get me back into it, it’s definitely the word “Oppa”.

    It really is that powerful.

    I mean, instead of sending diplomats and politicians into peace negotiations, why not send cute Korean girls for some good ol’ O-P-W ? You’ll have a peace treaty signed, sealed and delivered before you even get to the ‘P’ part.

    All we are saying, is give OPW a chance.

  19. 19 Kathy

    A Koreaphile due to Kdramas, I really enjoy your daily dramabeans stream of consciousness insights. This “oppa” essay rates as one of the best. Thanks for explaining the nuances of Korean relationships … it will certainly enhance my Kdrama viewing! Your could teach this sociology course!

  20. 20 frac

    Very interesting article, thank you! And what a great choice of vids! (I miss Ha Ji-Won, she’s too rare on screen).
    I was going to ask if “nuna” carries the same meanings, but I see that I’ll have to wait for girlfriday’s explanations.
    I assume that it doesn’t have the girlfriend meaning, but it may not be so simple, isn’t it?

  21. 21 Leona

    bring “Noona” explanation yesterday :P
    btw which are the kdramas with faux incest?…. the only i saw it is “My girl” until now…and that’s between “cusins”(and I’m kinda klala addict.. I saw over 30 kdramas and over 20 kmovies) and to me japs seem addicted to the subject…not klala land

  22. 22 jeann

    this is so fantastically wonderful. xD after countless confusion, many a k-drama as well as abusing ‘oppa’ while bargaining in korea later, I do get the word oppa, but this will be so useful for explaining to my clueless friends! :)

    thanks dramabeans! i especially love the clip from Soulmate. xD 200 million times more than circle lenses?! really, i gotta start getting myself some of those circle lenses too then for those times when I can’t abuse the word ‘oppa’. :)

  23. 23 Sanny

    but the younger guy in relationships like to be called oppa too… lol… like min-jae from the woman who still wants to marry.. :P

  24. 24 sallynally

    Haha, what a winning entry!

    I suspect girlfriend’s “noona” entry will cover Lee Seung Gi’s MV… ;-)

  25. 25 koreandramasrock

    Haha.. love the Soulmate and wax montage!! If you post Chae Rim singing wAX’S Oppa off-tune THAT would be perfect!! XP

  26. 26 smiles

    Thanks for this – can i just say i bloody love this blog!!! Keep it coming.

  27. 27 reluctantbutaddicted

    This was great! Loved the clip from Soulmate (which I haven’t seen yet, but will soon). Looking forward to the rest of the series. Thanks!

  28. 28 Leona

    as I know in Korea and in my country … by law you can’t marry until the 4th grade cousin… here we have 2 weeks notice by registrar so he could verify bigamy and blood relationship
    this could happen in many countries (except the ones wich allow more than one wife or husband)

  29. 29 lurker

    Leona- there are LOTS of kdramas with faux incest especially around 1999-to early 2000s.

    1. Autumn in My Heart- now this is the blurry lined “oppa”…

    SSH and SHK grew up as brother and sister… nothing like being close to your siblings, right? You’re 13 and he’s 15… you do everything together… and he makes fun of your boobs. BUT! they’re not really brother and sister all this time! The big reveal happened… because for some reason a 2 year old SSH switched SHK and his real sister in the hospital (truly wtf) when they were just newborns. What an evil child.

    So now, SSH gets his real sister back. So he separates from his faux sister.

    They see each other again when they are adults. and they remember each other as brother and sister… you have a suitor as hot as Won Bin who is your brother’s bff…. what do you do?

    you choose your faux!brother. Because it’s fated. OPPPPAAAAAAAAA.

    2. Winter Sonata because they could have shared the same daddy… all. this. time.

    3. And then there’s One Fine Day… Sung Yuri and Gong Yoo are long lost siblings who separated after a bad fire. Oppa’s main goal is to find his long lost sister again… and they fall in love. Of course it’s really faux!incest but dayumn

    4. 90 Days of Falling in Love… Kang Ji Hwan is about to die and he’s married… but he’s like, but that’s not my twu wub!!!!! and he meets Kim Ha Neul… that’s his twu wub… but they’re first cousins.

    Granted, there’s more to Kdramas than faux!incest but especially during the early 2000s, I always watched the “ARE WE…??? BUT I LOVE YOU????!!!” kind of scenarios.

    But I think this is for ASIAN dramas in general not just Kdramas.

  30. 30 Nhu

    @20Leona – If you haven’t seen the faux incest, you’ve probably stuck to the newer romantic comedies and trendies. A lot of the older Hallyu hits, as well as today’s tearjerkers and melodramas have faux incest. The quintessential faux incest storyline: Winter Sonata. Also, Autumn Fairy Tale, maybe Snowman (brother-in-law/sister?), Ireland, One Fine Day, a little bit in Que Sera Sera.

    The key here is it’s not REALLY incest. It all comes down to being “raised like brothers or sisters” or “being ‘family’ but not blood related” or “thought to be blood-related not but really”.

  31. 31 nora

    Thank you very much for the very informative article, and love seeing picture of Lee Da Hae and Lee Dong Wook together like that, Lee Da Hae still with her baby fat and both of them-the cutest couple ever. MY GIRL, my first introduction to kdrama land and of course the word ‘oppa’.

  32. 32 ivy

    OMG a very entertaining and informative post indeed. That soul mate video was the bomb! haha… Can’t wait for Noona, but I can’t imagine how any different it could get from its male counterpart.

  33. 33 pat

    Yippee! a much needed refresher course on Kdramaspeak. thanks much!

  34. 34 Infiniti512

    I loooooved this post! You always amuse me. I’ve always felt that the OPW and the use of pet names was childish and annoying but that’s what these girls are going for I guess. There’s always a childlike or immature element to the female lead, no? Dang, even by a few months, I still don’t have the right to call Bae Soo Bin oppa. *sighs*

    Anyhow, I came across this once, thought it would be perfect to share here for those like Samsooki who love the opw!

    http://www.funkyktown.com/product_info.php/call-oppa-p-139

  35. 35 Eunwhui

    Awesome article, Java! I always admired your writing style. :)

  36. 36 Biscuit

    @22 Sanny: True, some want to be called “Oppa” despite being younger. But I guess it’s was those mushy couple things and how guys like being called Oppa kinda stuff. But you wouldn’t really call someone younger Oppa unless… well… they might ask you to or something XD

    I really enjoyed this! Being half Korean and my mother raising me more according to Korean culture, knowing who to call “Oppa” or who I wasn’t suppose to (etc) came naturally without thinking. So it’s always been hard for me to explain to others why I call so-and-so “Oppa” and the differences. So this really, and I mean, REALLY helped!

  37. 37 Mel

    JB thanks once again for expanding on the Kdrama world, makes us the kdrama addictees maybe less confused on why oh why I/we can’t shake off the addiction… but it’s okey… It’s the best kind of therapy, treatment, stressbuster it may be—oh no moooore “sucked” into the drama addiction!!! Oh well, thanks for all the recaps and the companion guides to help explain why I and many others accept that the kdrama addiction cannot be cured nor shaken…

    Again thanks JB and Girlfriday…how awesome you used Chae Rim’s Oppa from the enchanting Oh! My Lady!!! Check all the OML Angels that are posting daily, it’s now 300 and beyond…. Those inerested are welcome to join. It’s not just OML Chae Rim and Choi Si Won but also Kpop—Super Junior, kmusic, even discussions on Jane Austen’s books in relation to OML….

    Have a wonderful weekend all Kdrama addictees, lurkers, romantics and everyone who just simply love JB and soon Girlfriday…

  38. 38 tasha

    thanks for explaining i’m not korean so when i would watch korean dramas i would
    be really confused but now that you’ve explained it makes sense. thanxs

  39. 39 Ri

    “Could you imagine the reaction she’d get if Eun-jo ever tried to call Ki-hoon oppa? I’m guessing that would be the first and last time, since he’d be dead from shock. ”

    i LOL-ed at this part because it’s so true! Just the thought of EJ calling KH “oppa” is too funny! :P

    I too don’t understand kdrama’s obsession with incest-that’s-not-incest-but-it-so-feels-like-it! Like in Autumn In My Heart which was my first faux incest story. Probably why I rooted for Won Bin so much, aside from the fact that he’s so hot. And why oh why did they have to introduce the love angle into Lee Jung-jae and Min Hyo-rin’s relationship?? I was really enjoying the brother-sister angle. But ah well, at least they didn’t end up together or get torn apart by some disease. They played it out to be a crush, which was nice and appropriate :)

    Thanks for teaching us abt the multifunctional “oppa” term! :)

  40. 40 Marg

    @28 You’re totally right about there being a lot of faux-incest storylines in Kdramas..I’ve noticed it also in Japanese dramas/movies/mangas (actually in some of these the incest is between true blood relatives, usually siblings). I’ve always found that very strange and have wondered why these outlets of Asian entertainment seem to have such a fascination with incestuous relationships. Is it because it’s such a taboo and therefore very attention-grabbing?…hmm…

  41. 41 LadyIgraine

    oh, oh, oh, oh…oppareul saranghae!

  42. 42 langdon813

    It will always be one of the most most crushing disappointments of my life that I am too old (and too Caucasian) to ever use the O-P-W. Believe me, if I thought there was the slightest hope that I could employ it and not look utterly foolish, I TOTALLY would.

    signed,

    An old sad non-Korean ahjumma :-(

  43. 43 sogba

    That was such a delightful read and the video from soulmates was so funny
    Thanx dramabeans :)

  44. 44 E

    You know what’s interesting, I never realized just how complicated the term “Oppa” was until this post. Yes, I understood all the nuances and differences but it never occurred to me just how messy it can get. I’m starting to realize that explaining this to my white friends would make their heads spin. LOL.

    That said. I’m pretty sure I’d get a serious case of daksal if I had to call anyone “Oppa” even though I’m Korean. Probably too American to use the term like that. Ick. =X

  45. 45 Yuki

    Thanks for the super informative post!
    I’m one of the people who gets confused easily when the lines start getting blurry.
    But now it’s all clear =D

  46. 46 Simmy

    @ Langdon813 I feel your pain…I’m buying this though: http://www.funkyktown.com/product_info.php/ajumma-p-99

    and I don’t care if no one will understand. I’m an ajumma at heart dammit!

    also, java: thanks for this article. It really made me laugh and it’s a great idea. i feel like this blog is suddenly more exciting (although I love it already and check it everyday). Looking forward to the next installment! esp. while waiting for coffee house and bad guy!

  47. 47 Porcelain

    Omg… I love this!!! Thanks for this JB… ITA to many of the scenarios and the clip of Soulmate is cool… the “kekeke” part made me lol so hard…

    And Wax’s oppa totally reminded me of Chae Rim’s off key rendition in OML…

    Can’t wait for the noona ver… Also will love it if you do the ahjussi – ahjumma one… it seems there is more than one defination for these terms, which I believe more non-Korean would love to know!

  48. 48 kimchicrunch

    Well done javabeans, thanks for the insightful article! I was wondering about one thing you mentioned- I think I remember learning in Japanese class that in Japan actually the twin born first is considered the younger sibling. Is that not the case in Korea? Not assuming that both cultures would have everything in common, just curious (since I don’t know the origin of the concept, I wasn’t sure if it was an East Asian thing or strictly a Japanese thing…).

  49. 49 LDH;)

    OMG YOORIN && GONGCHAN!!!!!!
    *0* I worship that couple maaaaan

    *spazzes*
    *dies*
    *gets up and rewatches My Girl for the 50th time*

    That picture of them together made me have warm fuzzy feelings inside :3

  50. 50 Vroom

    Thanks for posting this! I already knew the whole Oppa deal but I like that you delved into the levels of meaning it holds. It was really interesting to read! Can’t wait for the noona entry!

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