Since Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style’ went viral worldwide in 2012, more people around the world have been aware of Korea and its pop culture. With that comes the typical questions that come with exploring a country with a completely different language and culture.
One part of Korea that a lot of people are still baffled by is the word “Oppa”. I see a lot of people asking “What is an Oppa?” and there is a lot of confusion about the word due to the cultural differences between us and Korea.
An Oppa isn’t a husband, actor, crush, classmate or a boyfriend, but at the same time it kind of is.
“Oppa” (오빠) means “brother” but is used by women to address older men of a close or similar status as them, so you would say it to an older brother, and older male cousin, an older male classmate or co-worker whom you are close-ish to, and older male friend, a boyfriend (some older women call their younger boyfriends ‘oppa’ to seem cutsy) a husband or even just an older man. You can simply call someone ‘oppa’ or attach it to the end of their name (For example, “Hyunseung-oppa”/”현승오빠”). One of the issues with understanding this word is that there isn’t really a direct equivalent in English, so it is a new concept. If you will, you can kind of imagine that words as like a much less formal “sir” that you can use throughout a whole conversation/interaction.
It has a lot to do with respect and friendship and knowing when it is and isn’t acceptable to use can be quite tough for non-Koreans to understand sometimes. When in doubt, you can simply ask whether it is okay to call them “oppa”. If you are learning about Korean and Korean culture, pay attention to learning good manners, but Koreans will often be understanding if you make a few errors, so long as they know that your heart is in the right place.
‘Oppa’ is one of 4 very commonly used words of this kind.
You are already aware of ‘oppa’ as the word for brother which applies when a younger female talks to an older male. Along this same strain, you have the word ‘Hyung’ (형) which is the equivalent for a younger male in addressing an older male.
And, if you switch the genders, a younger man talking to an older woman would use the word ‘Noona’ (누나) while a younger woman talking to an older woman would say ‘eonni’ (언니).
Make sure that you use these words with care. Some people don’t like being called by them and you should make effort to respect people’s preferences, especially when you do not have a deep and practiced understanding of the language to guide you.
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