In this article, we’re going to dive into every nook and cranny of a word that just might be one of the most important in the Korean language: Oppa. That’s right, it’s the notorious oppa of “Oppan Gangnam Style” fame (more on that trailing “n” later).
This is the oppa you’ve heard so often in those k-dramas you like to binge.
This is the oppa that forms one brick of the foundation of Korean society.
Particularly as someone unfamiliar with Korean, this word carries a lot of weight. There’s ways it can elevate your conversation, illuminate a situation, and clarify pop culture.
But it can also spell danger, offering a handful of pitfalls that could insult or offend. We’re going to make sure to investigate as deeply as we can to make sure that doesn’t happen to you!
First, a quick, bird’s eye view of the word oppa:
What does Oppa mean?
Oppa is used by females to refer to older males. It literally means “(female’s) older brother.” Nowadays, it can also indicate an older (not too much older) male friend of a woman, or a romantic interest.
Some Historical and Social Context
One thing to keep in mind when thinking about the meaning and usage of oppa, is that hierarchies are exceptionally important in Korea. You see, Korea was heavily influenced by Chinese Confucianism. In fact, they were so enamored with the idea that it’s widely thought that Koreans are even more Confucian than the very progenitors, the Chinese themselves.
With that Confucian mindset comes an intense understanding of, and respect for, the relationships between people as laid out by fixed characteristics, like age or office. This provides an understanding of who is higher and lower in status. And the Korean language makes a constant effort to reflect these distinctions.
The most important thing to be aware of is who is higher than you in status. If you’re the big dog, you can get away with more, so it’s not quite as important to worry about those lower in status than you.
Now, who is higher status? It’s fairly self-explanatory: Anyone older than you, a stranger of the same age, your boss, a customer, your professor, military rank, etc.
In cases where you’re speaking to someone of higher status, you should never refer to them with the Korean word for “you,” and you should never use their name. Instead, you’ll want to use an honorific with them. Oppa is one of these potential honorifics.
Note: It’s always more important to respect individuals over any particular bit of grammar or ancient ideology. If someone of higher rank asks you to use their name or whatever, especially when speaking in English—or whatever your native tongue might be — follow their lead. Some people just don’t care, or might find it offensive for whatever reason. Also, the less age difference, the less likely people will be sticklers for these terms. And lots of especially old people really couldn’t care less.
My advice: read the air.
The Usage of Oppa
How the word oppa is used is a bit tricky. There’s some strong restrictions on when you should say it.
Rule number one is that the word is only spoken by females (with rare, usually intentionally subversive exceptions).
Second, it is only said to males who were born in the year or years before the female. One thing to note here is that Korean ages are figured differently than most other places. The year of birth itself is an important, fundamental part of figuring out someone’s age. So, if they guy is older, but born in the same year as the gal, then she wouldn’t call him oppa. If they’re almost the same age, but he was born in December ’91 and her in January ’92, then she’ll be able to call him oppa.
Of course, in practice, these labels are sometimes dropped, or used in other non-traditional ways. But these age/year differences distinguish what can be said, according to the culture.
“So, what would she call him then if they’re born in the same year?!” I hear you ask. Patience. I’ll get there! But first, more details.
It’s also important to note that the use of oppa is limited in scope. The age difference shouldn’t be more than ten years. If he’s more than ten years older, you’ve got to scrap the oppa.
And, if he’s older than thirty regardless of the difference between him and the woman—yup, you guessed it! You’re going to have to use a different word. Oppa is a young man’s game.
Finally, oppa is a rather personal term. It’s a bit casual, or friendly. You wouldn’t use it in a business correspondence, or when speaking to your senator.
Oh, and you’ll want to attach the word oppa (and the other honorifics we’ be discussing today) to the end of that person’s name when talking about them to other people.
More meanings of Oppa
So, the base definition, the source of the word, is “older brother (of a female).” It used to be restricted only to usage within the family. It’s spread out a bit now. However, it still suggests the superiority of the person you’re referring to and implies that you respect them, as you would an older brother.
These days you’ll often hear women refer to somewhat older boys with oppa as a term of endearment if they are really close friends.
And if she has particularly romantic designs on the fella, she’ll make sure to drop that oppa in conversation. With the right inflection, oppa can be a really flirtatious way for a girl to let a guy know she’s into him.
And, once in a relationship, the girl will continue to refer to her beau as oppa.
In fact, oppa gets so much use as a term women use for the targets of their affection that it often gets misunderstood by people learning Korean as a second language. They often think oppa means “boyfriend,” but that’s not the case. It can be used to refer to one’s boyfriend, but it doesn’t mean “boyfriend” itself.
It’s not a perfect analogy, but think of it like “sweetie.” You could say that your boyfriend is your “sweetie,” but in no sense does “sweetie” mean boyfriend.
You might hear a guy calling another guy oppa. This is always said as a way of explicitly crossing boundaries. It’s either to get a laugh, or perhaps to rile someone up. But don’t get tripped up by this if you happen to hear it. It’s all in jest and shouldn’t confuse you.
If you’re in university, things get a little different. Regardless of gender or age, a different set of terms gets used based on who started school first. The person who has been in school longer is seonbae and the person who has been there less time is hubae.
These are honorifics just like oppa. The only difference is the context in which they’re used.
Raising the Bar
If you want to get real fancy, then let’s take a look at sprucing up the word a bit in a way you’re likely to only hear in historical k-dramas.
If you were to refer to your own brother, you’d say orabeoni and if you were to refer to someone else’s brother, you’d say orabeonim.
So, orabeoni is an honorific form of oppa and orabeonim is an even more honorific form.
Fun to know, but maybe don’t think about using them in conversation right away…
Oppa in Korean Hangul Writing and Pronunciation
So, Korean is written in hangul, and hangul is one of the most interesting writing systems ever developed. An alphabetic syllabary, hangul was crafted by a single individual, King Sejong the Great in 1433 as a way to improve literacy rates throughout the kingdom. It is considered by some linguists to be one of the most phonologically accurate systems of writing in use today.
It’s also extremely logical.
Basically, hangul is written in a four-by-four square and is completely filled up by its component, read clockwise, starting from the top left. There are 11 components which you can either double up or add little ticks to in order to change the sound a bit.
Oppa is written 오빠. So, that first character is made up of two components. First, there’s ㅇ which is just a placeholder. Every character needs either both a consonant and a vowel, or a vowel and the place holder. It also needs to fill up the whole four-by-four space. Hence, ㅇ ends up being a very useful bit of silence.
The next part is derived from ㅡ, which is pronounced a bit like UH. Or, to be more accurate, think of the “oo” in “look.” Then, you stick a little notch on it like so ㅗ and the sound changes. It becomes OH, like the “o” in “poe.”
The second character starts with ㅂ, but doubled. So, it becomes ㅃ. The ㅂ is pronounced B, and the ㅃ is pronounced BB (a hard B).
The second part starts with ㅣ, which you pronounce EE, like the “ee” in “free.” But, you notch it and you get AH, like the “a” in “bar.”
“Hey! We’ve been learning about oppa, not obba!” Aye, that we have. This apparent discrepancy is due to something called “assimilation,” and basically it means things get pronounced differently depending on what the sounds are around it. That leads to some inconsistent Romanization methods.
Basically, the first character 오 is the “o” in “oppa,” and the second character 빠 is the “ppa.”
Oppa(n) Gangnam Style
Now, if you’re keen eyed like I was while researching this article, you’ll notice that in the lyrics to “Gangnam Style,” oppa is written 오빤. Now what on earth is that little right angle at the bottom? What does it mean?
“And I thought you said only gals said oppa, so what’s Psy doing saying it!?”
Worry not, my intrepid reader, I’ll explain it all.
So, let’s clarify the typography real quick. That component at the bottom is ㄴ and it makes an N sound. So, the lyrics are actually, “oppan Gangnam style.” But why?
Oppan is a shortening of oppa + neun. Neun is what is called a “topic marker.” They are attached to the end of nouns in order to identify what the sentence is talking about.
“Speaking of oppa, Gangnam style!” That’s the gist. But perhaps that doesn’t clear it up enough.
So, basically, in this song, the singer, Psy, is playing a bit of a fool. When he says oppa, he’s referring to himself in the third person. He’s declaring to a love interest, in a rather over-the-top way, that he’s got Gangnam style (Gangnam being an extremely wealthy and fashionable district in Seoul).
“Ya boy’s got Gangnam style!” says Psy.
Some Related Words
Let’s fill in some gaps with a quick overview of the words related to oppa.
First up, what does hyung mean in Korean? This is the immediate counterpart to oppa. Hyung is what a guy calls an older guy. Also, it’s worth noting that it can be written out as hyeung in some, usually outdated, forms of Romanization.
Nuna is what a guy calls an older girl.
Unnie is what a girl calls and older girl.
Dongsaeng is what the older person calls the younger person, regardless of gender.
Chingu is what you’d use if you were born the same year as someone else.
There’s a whole bunch more of these words that you’ll come across. I’ll cover a couple more farther down, but reviewing all the possible honorifics is way outside the purview of this article. It gets pretty expansive and a bit complicated. Besides, these six words will cover most of your most important honorific needs.
Gendered Honorifics in LGBT+ Circles
It’s worth noting that these honorifics can be used in playful, sexual, affectionate, and endearing ways within LGBT+ circles, breaking beyond their traditional uses.
For example, hyung is often used by both men in a gay relationship to refer to each other.
You may also hear gay men playfully call each other unnie, in a way similar to how, in English, gay men might playfully call each other “girl.” Also, gay men might refer to women they are close with as unnie, particularly if they are all part of a group accepting of each other’s sexual identity.
What does appa mean in Korean?
It means “daddy.” A more formal word, more along the lines of “father,” would be aboji.
What does omma mean in Korean?
It means “mommy” and is generally used by kids. “Mother” would be omeoni.
What does maknae mean in Korean?
This is a non-gendered term. It originally means “the youngest in the family,” but now can be used by older people to talk about the youngest in any group.
What does onnie mean in Korean?
This is just another way to Romanize unnie (which is what females call older females, in case you forgot!).
What does oppa mean in Russian?
In Russian it’s actually written opa, or опа in Cyrillic, and its meaning is wholly different from its phonological twin in Korean. In Russian it’s like “Whoa!” It’s an exclamation that conveys surprise. Opa!