Monday, August 20, 2012

Autonyms and Exonyms : Korea


An autonym is the name that a group of people or a nation uses to refer to itself - an autonym, endonym or self-appellation. (South) Koreans have three principle autonyms for referring to themselves when speaking their native language:
한국인 (hanguk-in) - the more formal "Korean person"
한국사람 (hanguk saram) - the less formal "Korean person"
대한민국 (dae Han minguk) - "country of the great Han (people)"
한민족 (han minjok) - "citizen of the Han"
What is central to all of these names is "Han", a powerful tribal and apparently roving people who occupied vast territories of the steppes in what is now Manchuria, and perhaps neighboring areas of Mongolia and Russia. This "Han" has no relationship to the imperial Chinese Han Dynasty that largely ruled between 206 BC and 221 CE, but can be traced back to the 삼한 or "Three Han", a grouping of confederacies that ruled about the time of Gojoseon's demise. It is also thought to be linked to the Turkish and Mongol "khan" or "king".


An exonym is a name given to a group of people that differs from what they call themselves. The "People of the Great Han", as they refer to themselves, are known in English as "Koreans", which is likely a twisting of "Goryeo" but was spoken and written "Cauli" by the Italian sailors who happened into Goryeo waters during the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392) and thus was entered onto Western maps as "Cauli" or, via a later twisting, as "Corea". Another exonym which I find very interesting was used by the Chinese to reference Korea; they called Korea 동방예의국 or "the country of courteous people of the East" in reference to Koreans taking the concepts of Confucianism, which had originated in China, and out-Confucianizing the Chinese; thus, the Koreans were recognized as a people of manners and who gave high esteem to the proper heirarchies and classes.

Korea also has been attributed the nickname of "The Land of the Morning Calm" because Joseon (朝鮮) from the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), translates into English as "morning calm". The term was coined into English by Percival Lowell in a book "Chosun: The Land of the Morning Calm" (1885) and later creatively rendered as "land of the morning calm" in a poem by the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941). Koreans later back-borrowed the English phrasing when referring to their country; however, in recent years the Korean government has been re-fashioning a new country imagery (not exonym, but rather a refocusing away from a now unwanted exonym) — "sparkling Korea", "Korea sparkling" and "dynamic Korea" — to counteract the stagnant imagery of the Confucian ideal of calm unchangingness and invoke more globalized imagery not resistant to change and thus modernization.

Derogatory Names

OK, I didn't want to go around and ask different ethnic groups what derogatory names they had for Koreans, so I just asked groups of Koreans themselves. At first they remained collectively silent on a topic that would disparage themselves, but when I reversed the question and asked what derogatory names they had for some of their neighboring countries - principally Japan and China - their lips spilled terms. Surprising, Koreans seem to have more abrassive terms for Chinese people than Japanese, which I find quite odd because the Japanese controlled Korea quite recently during colonial times (1910-1945) and rancor still crops up between the two groups because of that. And then ironically, the three groups of people I asked couldn't give me a derogatory term from Chinese concerning themselves, but they were all quick to tell me that Japanese contemptuously referred to Koreans as 조선인 (joseon-in) but they emphasized it was the slurred intonation of contempt and Japanese L1 that recreated the naming into the derogatory 조세징 (josei-jing). Joseon was the dynasty that was ruling when Japan invaded the country and later colonized it. It seems to me that the name itself wasn't derogatory but took on a blasphemous etymology when used by the Japanese when referring to the people as their colonial subjects and it seems the twisting of the pronunciation likewise twisted the meaning. [Case in point for "Joseon-in" now being disparaging in itself, North Koreans are referred to as 조선인 by the South Koreans, which is not derogatory but reflects the era in which the division of ethnic people was created.]

Neither of the groups were familiar with the English derogatory term for Koreans - gook - which stems probably from the Korean War (1950-1953) when the UN, principally American, soldiers were here in Korea and repetitively heard people referred to as 한국사람, 영국사람, 미국사람, etc. (respectively Korean, English, American) with the common denominator of all the names being "국" or gook, meaning "country" and then 사람 "person". I was glad that this derogatory form had fallen out of common usage and that, even if the word "Korean" is spoken in epithetical tones, it is the tones and not the word choice that shames the speaker and negatively labels the Korean people now.

Holonyms and Meronyms

Holonym and meronym are paired opposites as revealed by their Greek semantic origins: holonym is basically "whole" + "name" and meronym is "part" + "name". The holonym of the Korean peninsula is Asia as both North and South Korea can be labeled under the classification of "Asia". The meronyms (or subsets) of Asia concerning the Korean peninsula are DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) and the ROK (Republic of Korea).


  1. Nice Post!!
    But 호주국사람 is wrong~
    It is 호주사람!! :)
    Also, not 양국사람, it is 영국사람!!!! :)

  2. Thanks, Hye Won! I've corrected my confusing errors. Whew, for savvy readers!

  3. Another example of autonym and exonym: Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert call themselves "zhu twa si" (the harmless people) and non-bushmen "zo si" (animals with hooves), because non-bushmen are not to be considered as humans as they are dangerous and wild, like lions and hyenas.

  4. An interesting link is "Countries as Named in Their Own Languages" -

  5. Your exploration of autonyms and exonyms helped me to sort out "Corea" and "Korea". Thank you.
    If my memory serves me well, North Korea's airline was called "Coryo", but nowadays, "Koryo" (고려) seems to be the current spelling. To complicate things more, a phonetic English spelling of 고려 might be suggested by the heavens as "Koh-ryuh"; because, English speakers see gor-yo, not go-ryo. Confusion in transcoding Korean spellings to English spellings can indeed be a challenge. RB at

    1. Etymology absolutely fascinates me too! Thanks for your additional comments!