KOREAN MAXIMS: Fish Proverbs (1)

 Korean Maximsand Folk Sayings about Fish 




MBC’s Nolleowa(놀러와, “Come to Play”) is one of my favorite Korean TV shows and it has been on the air for about 8 years now.  When one of the guests on last show spoke of Korean maxims that mention Saengseon (생선, “fish”) (air date: 03/19/2012), I thought I would blog about Korean maxims and folk sayings about fish to learn more about them myself as well as to help you learn about them.  (FYI, in Korean, the fish are called either Mulggogi (물고기) or Saengseon (생선):  The native Korean word Mulggogi refers to any fish species while the Sino-Korean word Saengseon(生鮮) refers to the edible fish species only.)


1. Korean Folk Sayings about Fish of the Month

Just like we have a fruit for every season (Winter Oranges, Spring Strawberries, Summer Watermelons, and Fall Apples), Koreans have a fish for every season – more accurately, almost for every month.  Eastern, western, and southern coasts of Korea have seasons for various species of fish and through the ages, Korean fishermen have passed down the traditional knowledge of what fish hit their peak (size-wise and taste-wise) on what month, by word of mouth or in the form of maxims or folk sayings.


MONTH
FISH
FOLK SAYINGS
Ilwol (일월)
JANUARY
Domi (도미)
“Sea Bream”


Eo-du-il-mi (어두일미, 魚頭一味):  “Fish heads taste the best.”  This old saying originally derived from the fact the head of sea bream is its best part, taste- and flavor-wise, and is meatier than that of other fish.


Iwol (이월)
FEBRUARY


Gajami (가자미)
“Flatfish”

Gajami noldeon bbeol masi domi matboda jotta. (가자미 놀던 맛이 도미 맛보다 좋다):  This saying literally translates to “The mudflats which are the playground for flatfish (after they have gone home) taste better than sea bream themselves.”  Let me paraphrase this for you: It’s like saying, “The chocolate candy wrappers (that are saturated with the fragrance of chocolate) taste better than any other real candies.” Just imagine how great the flatfish would taste in February to have such a complimentary proverb given to them!  And what a shame, the sea bream!







Samwol (삼월)
MARCH







Jogi (조기)
“Croakers”

Ganggyeongjange jogitbae deureowanna? (강경장에 조깃배 들어왔나?):  This folk saying translates to “Did a croaker fishing boat arrive at Gangyeong Market?”  It is used to describe a disorderly, boisterous conduct or a ruckus. Ganggyeongjang used to be Korea’s biggest commercial market (from the mid 18th century through the late 19th century) which was located along the Geumgang or Geum River.  When fishing vessels with a boatful of croackers arrived at the Ganggyeongjang harbor in March, all the people rushed to the pier to buy the fish, causing moments of unruliness. Croakers caught in March are that great.

Jogiboda motan nom (조기만도 못한 ): “A fellow who is no better than even a croaker.”  Croakers are known to be one of the most punctual and reliable, so ancient Korean fishermen disdainfully described those who didn’t keep their word as “a fellow who is no better than even a croaker.”

Samwol geomundo jogineun chirwol chilsan jangeowa an baggunda (3 거문도 조기는 7 칠산장어와 바꾼다):  “No one will exchange March croakers from Geomundo or Geomun Island with July eels from Chilsan.”  This folk saying is praising croakers in March that beat the fish of July, eels, in the taste department.


Sawol (사월)
APRIL


Samchi (삼치)
“Spanish mackerel”

Sawol chamchi han baeman geonjimyeon Pyeongyang gamsado joka gatta. (4 삼치 배만 건지면 평양감사도 조카 같다): “If your fishing vessel returns with a boatful of Spanish mackerel in April, then you will feel like the Governor of Pyeongyang is your nephew.”  Since the Spanish mackerel taste the best in April, the more of them you catch, the more lucrative you will make your business so that you will even belittle the Governor of Pyeongyang, the city considered the second best and second important next to Seoul in ancient Korea, just like New York is considered (coming next to Washington, D.C.) in the States.  Pyeongyang or Pyongyang is the capitol of North Korea now.


Owol (오월)
MAY


Nongeo* (농어)
“Sea bass”

Bori tajak nongchon chonggak, nongeo hanmeut jabeun seomcheonyeoman motada. (보리타작 농촌 총각 농어 한믓 잡은 섬처녀만 못하다):  “A bachelor farmer threshing barley after harvesting is no better than a bachelorette who caught ten sea bass.”  This saying tells itself how popular and expensive the sea bass are in May.  FYI, the word meut () is a traditional Korean counting unit for fish.  One meut is equal to 10 fish: e.g. hanmeut (한믓, “one meut”) is ten fish and dumeut (두믓, “two meuts”) twenty, and so on.




Yuwol (유월)**
JUNE




Sungeo* (숭어)
“Flathead
gray mullets”

Taesanboda nopeun boritgogae-edo sungeo bineulguk hansabal masimyeon jeongseung bogo i nom handa. (태산보다 높은 보릿고개에도 숭어 비늘국 사발 마시면 정승보고 이놈한다):  This folk saying literally translates to “Even though you are in the middle of climbing the “Barley Hill” which is taller than the tallest mountain, you’ll dare to yell at the Minister of State when you finish a bowl of Flathead gray mullet scale soup.”  In this saying, Boritgogae (보릿고개, “Barley Hill”) refers to Korean spring famines that ancient Koreans had to endure each and every year until the barley harvest.  But even a bowl of soup made only with gray mullet’s “scales,” not the meat, made them full, happy, energized, and gutsy to have courage to yell at Jeongseung (정승, “Minister of State”).  Ancient Korean fishermen sure had a sense of humor!

Chirwol (칠월)
JULY

Jangeo* (장어)
“Eels”

Sukjue gosari neoeun jangeoguk meokgo namyeon dareun geoseun maengmure joyakdol salmeun gukmat nanda. (숙주에 고사리 넣은 장어국 먹고 나면 다른 것은 맹물에 조약돌 삶은 국맛 난다): “Once you taste a bowl of eel soup made with Mung bean sprouts and bracken, all other kinds of soup will taste like boiled water with pebbles.”  This saying tells itself how overwhelmingly tasty eels are.



Parwol (팔월)
AUGUST



Ggotgge (꽃게)
“Blue crabs”

Parwol geumeum geneun ggulmasijiman boreum mirwol geneun gaedo nunmul heullimyeo meongneunda. (8 그믐게는 꿀맛이지만 보름 밀월게는 개도 눈물 흘리며 먹는다):  “The blue crabs at the end of August taste like honey but even a dog cries while eating them during the full moon.” When there’s a full moon in the sky, it’s too bright at night for the blue crabs to move around to look for food because they need to hide from their predators.  Accordingly, they lose weight during that time.  On the other hand, they fatten up fully inside thus are full of meat at the end of the month. Yum~







Guwol (구월)
SEPTEMBER







Jeoneo (전어)
“Gizzard shad”

Jeoneo hanmariga haepssalbap yeol geureut juginda. (전어 마리가 햅쌀밥 열그릇 죽인다):  “A dish of just one gizzard shad makes you finish ten bowls of new crop rice.”  It tastes that good in September.

Jeoneo meoritsoge ggaega seomal (전어 머릿속에 깨가 서말): “(There are) about 15 gallons of sesame seeds in the head of one gizzard shad.” The September gizzard shad tastes really nutty and savory as if it had about 15 gallons of sesame seeds in its head.  (FYI, the word mal () is a traditional Korean counting unit for grains.  One mal equals to 18 liters.  Here in this saying, seomal is three mal (54 lit.=15 gal.).

Jeoneo gumneun naemsae-e jip nagan myeoneuriga doraonda. (전어굽는 냄새에 집나간 며느리가 돌아온다):  “The smell of grilling gizzard shad attracts back home a daughter-in-law who disappeared from home.”  Traditionally, married women in Korea live with their in-laws, severed from their own kin.  As the expression - “Living with the in-laws is spicier than hot chili peppers” - implies, they were expected to be about everything: the obedient wife and daughter-in-law, dutiful sister-in-law, chaste woman, devoted mother, and so on.  Especially the emotional landmines with their mothers-in-law who seemed to have come from hell were everywhere and many times even destroyed their lives.  The daughter-in-law in this saying might have left home because of that. 

Siwol (시월)**
OCTOBER

Galchi (갈치)
“Cutlass fish”

Siwol galchineun dwaeji samgyeopsalboda natgo, eunbit bineureun hwangso gapboda nopda. (10 갈치는 돼지 삼겹살보다 낫고 은빛 비늘은 황소 보다 높다):  “The October cutlass fish tastes better than fresh bacon and its silver scales are more expensive than an ox.”  This saying also tells itself how tasty and expensive the cutlass fish are in October.
Sibirwol (십일월, November) and Sibiwol (십이월, December) have no specific fish of the month since all the fish taste super during that time.
*Note that Nongeo, Sungeo, and Jangeo are respectively pronounced /noŋə/, /suŋə/, and /jaŋə/, not /noŋgə/, /suŋgə/, and /jaŋgə/.
**Yuwol (June) is a compound of yuk (, “six”) and wol (, “month”) and Siwol (October) is that of sib (, “ten”) and wol.   When combined, both yuk and sib lose the final consonants, respectively resulting in Yuwol and Siwol, not Yugwol and Sibwol.