While burning some subtitles and Korean dramas for a non-Korean speaking friend, Bella noticed that the subtlety was completely lost with a rather simple reference of the relationship between two characters. Especially since her ever keen friend picked up on and promptly asked if there was a difference between “gomo” and “emo,” recognizing that she hears Bella address her own aunt as “emo.”
In the English language, rarely would you find distinct breakdowns of one’s relation to each other. However, in the Korean language, one can tell which side of the family (maternal or paternal) you are related to simply by their title within the family. This is probably not a foreign concept for some, most notably for those who are familiar with the Chinese or the Vietnamese culture. (In fact, many of the Korean terms for family members are Sino-Korean.) However, those others who are new to this concept are usually left confused by all the different terms.
This post is brought to you by both Bella and Blue, as a joint effort to give a more comprehensive explanation of the term “aunt” in Korean.
As always, we’ll use examples from dramas to illustrate our point.
In Secret Garden, Oska (YOON SANG HYUN) and Joo-won (HYUN BIN) are cousins. In this scene, Oska refers to Joo-won’s mom as “emo.” Although the subtitles have it translated as “your mom and my mom” (which is theoretically correct), the literal translation would be as follows:
Oska: Do you know what is the difference between Aunt and my mom, from other daughters of wealthy families?
Contrast this with Lie to Me, where the Hyun brothers, Ki-joon (KANG JI HWAN) and Sang-hee (SUNG JOON), call their aunt “gomo.”
In fact, both “emo” (이모) and “gomo” (고모) mean “aunt” in English. But why do Oska and Joo-won refer to each other’s mother as “emo,” whereas Ki-joon and Sang-hee call their aunt “gomo”?
“Emo” is a term for an aunt, but it’s specific to your mother’s (older or younger) sister. By calling each other’s mother “emo”, we know that the exact relationship between Joo-won and Oska is that their moms are sisters.
“Gomo” also means aunt, but it is a term specific to your father’s (older or younger) sister. By calling their aunt “gomo,” we know that Ki-joon and Sang-hee’s aunt is their father’s sister.
When your mother or father has multiple sisters (and thus, you have multiple aunts), the general practice is to differentiate one from the other by adding the word for “older” (큰=keun) or “younger” (작은=jak-eun) before the “aunt” word. If there are three or more sisters, then you would need to start numbering the aunt. (e.g., First emo/gomo, second emo/gomo, youngest emo/gomo.)
Pretty straightforward so far, right? But we’re sure your keen observation would have noticed that this would still leave out other women considered your “aunt,” but are not your parent’s sisters. For example, there are those women who became your aunt by “marrying into” your family. In other words, are there separate terms for those women who married your parent’s brothers?
Indeed there are! Since there are different terms available depending on the specific circumstances, we’re going to first list all these terms.
1. Keun eomeoni (also called “keun umma”): Literally means “older mom” or “big mom,” it is a term for the wife of your FATHER’S hyung (older brother). [Note: The Sino-Korean word "baekmo" is also available, but rarely used.]
2. Jak-eun eomeoni (also called “jak-eun umma”): Literally means “younger mom” or “little mom,” it is a term for the wife of your FATHER’S younger brother. [Note: The Sino-Korean work "sookmo" is also available, but not as used often.]
3. Weh sookmo (frequently just shortened to “sookmo”): It is a term for the wife of your MOTHER’S brother (either older or younger).
In New Gisaeng Story, Ra-ra (HAN HYE RIN) calls the wife of her father’s younger brother “jak-eun umma.” But in fact, the family holds a birth secret. Ra-ra is actually the daughter of the man and the woman who she called her uncle and her aunt all her life. Hence, the woman she thought to be her mom was really her aunt, and specifically her “keun umma.” (Umm, yeah, this drama is makjang to the core.)
But, you’re not my aunt!
There are two situations in which the term “emo” is used for those who are not family.
1. Your parent’s close female friends (typically, the mom’s close friends): This can also be seen in the Western culture where you call your mom’s close female friend as Aunt so-and-so. In Korea, the term “emo” is used instead. The idea is that these women are so close to your family that they’re practically part of your family.
2. Older female servers at a restaurant: This only works at small mom-and-pop places, but you may notice some people calling middle-aged women running those restaurants “emo.”
There is a scene in Twinkle Twinkle where Seung-joon (KIM SUK HOON) and Jung-won (KIM HYUN JOO) go to a restaurant together. When Seung-joon calls the lady “emo,” Jung-won reacts with surprise, remarking that Seung-joon doesn’t seem like the type of person who would call strangers “emo.” Well, she was right. That lady at the restaurant was indeed his real aunt (his mother’s sister).
However, it’s not uncommon for people to actually call the restaurant ladies “emo.” The idea is that even though you’re just a customer, you’re asking the servers to consider you their own nephew or niece. And just as they would serve hearty portions to their own family members, the restaurant owners would be more inclined to serve heartier portions or perhaps serve you some extra side dishes.
But note that you’re not expected to call the lady at the restaurant your “emo.” Generally, people do this at restaurants where they frequent often and the lady would recognize their face. Also, this practice is limited to mom-and-pop restaurants, where the environment feels tight-knit and familial. No one does this at higher end restaurants! Finally, some people just don’t feel comfortable calling strangers their “aunt,” and don’t do so. The stereotype is that the outgoing, extraverted people would feel comfortable calling a random stranger their aunt. Hence, this explains why Jung-won was surprised to see the uptight Seung-joon call someone at the restaurant his “emo.”
And next in the series… “Uncles!”