William Safire’s column in today’s NY Times Magazine has a useful discussion of the well-known bynames of the late Kim Il Song and his son and heir Kim Jong Il:

In 1994, Kim Il Sung (Great Kim) died and was succeeded by his son, whom Western writers continued to refer to, tongue-in-cheekily, as Dear Leader. But the son, Kim Jong Il (Dear Kim, in Kempton’s simplifying formulation), soon changed his sobriquet to fit his new position.
He stopped having himself called Dear Leader (in Korean, ch’inaehanum chidoja) and assumed his father’s informal title, Great Leader (widaehan, ”great,” yongdoja, ”leader”). But that was confusing whenever the two men were spoken of in the same sentence. To which one—the late Great Kim or the former Dear Kim, now elevated to titular greatness—did the compound proper noun Great Leader refer?
Solution: subtly demote the dead Old Man. The deceased Kim Il Sung, formerly widaehan yongdoja, is now remembered in North Korea as widaehan suryong, ”major chieftain, big boss,” important, but a linguistic cut below Great Leader. It is the son, whose leadership title is no longer encumbered with childlike endearment, who has taken his father’s widaehan yongdoja, the top of the Communist Korean pecking order.

For more, I direct the reader to Andrei Lankov’s article (originally published in Russian in 1995, thus now somewhat outdated) on North Korean official propaganda; this paragraph has further linguistic information:

When Kim Chong Il’s ascent to supreme power had just begun, he was given a title which might at first seem a little strange—the “Centre of the Party” (Kor.: Tang chungang), although finally the title “Dear Ruler” (Kor. ch’in’ae’ha’nun chidoja) has prevailed. Even if the names of Kim Il Song or Kim Chong Il are not mentioned specifically, every North Korean knows what titles go with whom and would never mix the “Great Leader” (Kim Il Song) with the “Dear Ruler” (Kim Chong Il). Special words and even grammar forms have been established which may only be used in relation to these two personages. Their names along with any quotation from their writings are always printed in a special bold font. Starting from the primary school, North Koreans are taught how to make correct sentences in which the leader and his son are mentioned. According to this “court grammar”, these two sacred names must not be put in the middle or, God forbid, at the end of a phrase, but always at the beginning.

Safire, by the way, goes on to provide further Korea-related details (on the origins of the word “Korea” and the descriptive “Land of the Morning Calm”; I was especially proud of him for sticking with “etymology unknown” with regard to gook—I know how he loves dubious etymologies). But it wouldn’t be a Safire column without at least one mistake, and although this one is minor, it’s interesting fodder for discussion. He refers to “the naming of Japan, or Nippon, from ni-pon, ‘sun-rise,’ which we recognize as ‘the Land of the Rising Sun.'” The attempted clarity of the hyphenated ni-pon betrays an understandable, but false, assumption; in fact, the first part of the compound is not ni but nichi, which represents the Japanese reading of the Chinese character for ‘day, sun’; the character was pronounced *nyit in Old Chinese, which was borrowed into Japanese as nichi and later (when the pronunciation in Chinese had changed) as jitsu (it is also read as hi as a native Japanese word, and the Chinese word itself is now pronounced r in Mandarin… but that’s another story). It happens that when syllables ending in -chi are combined with a syllable beginning with a voiceless consonant, the -chi drops out and the consonant is doubled, hence {nichi + pon} = Nippon. It’s all too complicated for a newspaper column… but that’s what Languagehat is for.


  1. Bill Brown says:

    Nice article. But I thought the origin of “gook” was well understood. Perhaps I am mistaken. Can someone validate or deny this story for me.
    Any American living in Korea, especially in 1950s, became used to Koreans referring to them as “me gook sa dam”. Kids would simply call out “me gook whenver a US soldier passed by.
    “Me gook” is the Korean word for America which stems from Chinese. Chinese use the word Mei Guo but the character Mei (meaning beautiful and sounding a little like America) is prounced “me” in Korean and the character guo, which means country, is prounced “gook” in Korean. Sa dam means people. To the GI, it sounded like the Koreans were saying “me gook” referring to themselves–understandable especially since polite Koreans do not not point. In reality, the Americans had it backwards. The Koreans were calling the Americans “me gooks”.

  2. Nice story, but no. The word goes back to the ’30s, when there were hardly any Americans wandering around Korea. The dictionaries say “Origin unknown,” and I’m afraid that’s the way it will probably stay.

  3. Gook originated from the Philippine war (1899-1902). Since the language was gibberish to the Americans who were trying to colonize them, they called it Gugu or googoo. – subsenquently – Gook. This followed on in the Korean & Vietnam wars. It is now referred to alll Asians.
    The 미국 is a derivative.

  4. US History has involved Korea since long before the Korean War. For example when we sold them out to the Japanese in 1910 after promising them we wouldn’t support a Japanese invasion and then looking the other way when it happened. So I wouldn’t count the 미국 origin out for certain; though you’re quite correct, the origin isn’t known beyond doubt.
    Also it’s “me-gook sa-ram,” not “dam.” Fully: 미국 사람. And in this case the “me” probably does not refer to the Chinese word for beautiful though much Korea etymology comes from Chinese in almost exactly the same way much English originated in Latin; both are the scientific/medical languages.

  5. And in this case the “me” probably does not refer to the Chinese word for beautiful
    So you’re saying the Koreans just happen to have a name for America that, through sheer coincidence, sounds exactly as though it came from the Chinese name, Chinese being the standard source for cultural vocabulary in the region? I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to provide some supporting evidence before I’m willing to consider that.

  6. About the “me,” I could be wrong. I’m citing one of my former Korean colleagues from when I worked in Korea who claimed it wasn’t from the Chinese. She was a language instructor so I took it on credit. Korean contains a lot of Chinese but the language is not based on it anymore than English is based on Latin or Greek.

  7. Jimmy Ho says:

    the character Mei (meaning beautiful and sounding a little like America)
    One precision: the mei in Meiguo 美国 comes from Yameilijia 亚利加, which is a transcription of the name “America” (Meizhou 美洲 is the American continent). Most names of the big Western countries have been abbreviated that way: Falanxi > Faguo (France), Yinggelan > Yingguo (England, in this case the whole UK), Eluosi > Eguo (Russia), etc.
    (Now, I’m sure LH has mentioned it in the past, but I’ve observed that students of Chinese are often taught only the shortened names without any explanation about their origin.)

  8. Some time ago I discovered that an archaic Japanese name for Australia is either “濠太刺利” or “濠太剌利”. I never found out why because no readings quite fit the usual “ōsutoraria” pronunciation and it doesn’t seem to be borrowed from Chinese because that language uses “澳大利亞”. Both languages also have an abbreviated form: “澳洲” (Àozhōu) for Chinese, and “豪州” (Gōshū) for Japanese. (Japanese originally used “濠洲” before simplifying its writing system).
    Can anybody shed more light on this then? (-:

  9. Jimmy Ho says:

    Frankly, I am curious about it as well, and not only because of the Zhuangzi reference (the bridge of River Hao).
    That would be “Haotaicili” in “Mandarin” (and “Hou-tai-tsi-lei” in Cantonese), which sounds a bit like a rendering of the English name with a permutation of the t- and s- consonants (“Autstali”). Obviously, I am no phonologist at all, so please feel free to correct anything necessary. My limitations in Japanese don’t allow me to answer Andrew’s question.

  10. M Sheehan says:

    After having studied Korean for a year I was curious as to whether the term “gook” was brought back from the Korean War. Miguk for American, Hanguk for Korean. To correct Ashley, modern day English is based on Latin. Half of all modern day English is based on French which of course is a Latin based language. When the Normans invaded England they brought French with them and England became bilingual with half the vocabulary we use today in America coming from French.

  11. Sorry, but Ashley is right. Modern English is based on (derived from) Old English, which is a Germanic language. The fact that there are a lot of loans from French does not change that fact; furthermore, the fact that French is a descendent of Latin does not mean that French loan words are really from Latin, any more than the French word le smoking is borrowed from Old English or Proto-Germanic.
    Also, “England” did not become bilingual; most English speakers remained monolingual, but those who wanted to move up in the world or had to do business with the court had to learn at least some French.

  12. M Sheehan says:

    Of course Old English is a Germanic language, but trying to interpret old English would be just as difficult as trying to interpret French. Please refer to the Wikipedia article on the progression of the English language which takes us from Old English to Middle English to modern English.
    The influence of Latin on Old English should not be ignored. A large percentage of the educated and literate population (monks, clerics, etc.) were competent in Latin, which was then the prevalent lingua franca of Europe. It is sometimes possible to give approximate dates for the entry of individual Latin words into Old English based on which patterns of linguistic change they have undergone, though this is not always reliable. There were at least three notable periods of Latin influence. The first occurred before the ancestral Saxons left continental Europe for England. The second began when the Anglo-Saxons were converted to Christianity and Latin-speaking priests became widespread. However, the largest single transfer of Latin-based words occurred following the Norman invasion of 1066, after which an enormous number of Norman French words entered the language. Most of these Oïl language words were themselves derived ultimately from classical Latin. The Norman Conquest approximately marks the end of Old English and the advent of Middle English. I am sure if you researched a modern English dictionary you would discover that 50% of the vocabulary is derived from French and the other 50% from Anlgo-Saxon.

  13. M Sheehan says:

    In regards to Mei (pronounced like the month May) in Chinese and Mi (pronounced like me) in Korean it is true that the Chinese characters were used by Korea, but there is no relation between the spoken language of China and Korea. Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language belonging to the Sino-Tebetan family. Korean is an Altaic language whose family includes Turkish and Japanese.

  14. Dave Clark says:

    I’m a former Air Force linguist. I’ve studied Korean for the past 5 years, and I agree with M Sheehan’s last post.
    Many Asian languages (Including Sino-Korean and Japanese) use Chinese characters for their written text (in part or in whole), with absolutely no aural commonalities.
    Mi-kuk (Me gook, SKATS: MU LHL) is the Korean word for America; the Chinese character for the Korean Mi mean “Beautiful” I personally believe this is the origin of the American derogatory “Gook”
    Han-kuk: Korea (JEF LHL)
    Chung-kuk: China (PHK LHL, the chinese character for Chung (Choong) means “Middle” or “Central”

  15. It’s true that Chinese and Korean are not related but Korean borrowed a huge number of words from Korean, as did Japanese. Almost every Chinese character used in Korean has a Koreanized version of the Chinese pronunciation current for the time and dialect borrowed from. Very few characters were invented in Korea.
    Most Korean words which can be written in hanja are words borrowed from Chinese. Native Korean words generally have no hanja. “Seoul” is a common example of a native Korean word with no hanja spelling.
    Most linguists do not believe there is any proof that Korean is related to Turkish or even Japanese. In fact they haven’t even been able to decide if the ancient languages of Korea were related to each other. Korean is usually considered to be a language isolate, as is Japanese. I believe it’s more generally accepted that at least Turkish and Mongolian are related.
    Amritas is a site with many excellent discussions of the relationships between Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and even Vietnamese. (Often buried under lots of right-wing political postings, but worth digging out).

  16. From what I have read, North Korean premier Kim Jong-Il has about 15 different titles just like his late co-idiologists in Romania, Nicolae and Elena Ceaus’escu, did. In a PBS documentary about North Korea that was aired last Fall, his people frequently referred to him as “The General” (which would be Jang-goon in Korean) and one girl said she was proud to practice gymnastics after school everyday in hopes that she and her team might someday be able to perform for “The General.”
    Nearly all Korean immigrants in the United States are South Koreans and all of the ones I’ve met feel very bitter about the North Korean regime. As a rule, you should never mention North Korea to them. With a few Koreans that I know very well I have broken that rule and brought up the subject just briefly not really expecting them to comment on it very much and they don’t. One of my Korean friends simply said “Oh, the North Koreans are like gangsters!”

  17. M Sheehan says:

    While Mr. Dunbar is right that there is much uncertainty as to whether Korean or Japanese are part of the Altaic family, currently that is the family they are classified under.
    the Altaic language spoken by the Korean people
    Source: WordNet ® 2.0, © 2003 Princeton University

  18. Actually, the term “gook” predates the Korean War. I’ve read personal accounts of marines fighting on Okinawa, and the term is used quite often to describe the native Okinawans (not the Japanese) and other south pacific islanders. I think it’s far more likely that this term is a variation of the Philippino “gugu”.

Speak Your Mind