Idioms are an important aspect of any language and one the major hurdles any language learner needs to overcome. In Koran, however, there is one particular type of idiom that is far more complex than all other idioms. That type of idiom is known as 사자성어 (Hanja: 四字成語) or four-character idioms.
4 Hanja, 1 idiom
The 사자성어 (Hanja: 四字成語) or four-character idioms are very important to Koreans. Knowing and being able to properly use these expressions is considered the hallmark of a well-educated person in Korea. In both literature and more common formal texts, you will come across a few of these idioms. So what are these four-character idioms?
The four-character idioms, or 사자성어 (Hanja: 四字成語) as they are known in Korean, are idioms that consist of exactly 4 characters most of the time. Not Hangeul characters, mind you, but Hanja. This is due to the fact many of these expressions have their origin in ancient Chinese history rather than Korea, a group known as 고사성어 (Hanja: 故事成語). However, this does not mean there aren’t any native Korean four-character idioms, because there are.
Also a little warning to those whose native language is Chinese or Japanese: As you are aware the 사자성어 exist in your native languages (Chinese: 成语 or 成語; Japanese: 四字熟語) as well and while they are very similar there are still differences between your native version and the Korean version of many of these idioms. Don’t get tricked into by the similarity.
Meaning Of The Idiom
Because of the nature of four-character idioms, the exact meaning of the expression is often times very unclear by just looking at the idiom itself. The meaning is hidden behind the four characters though. Often times the chosen characters are actually an abbreviated version of a historical tale. The lesson from that historical tale is, therefore, the actual meaning of the idiom. The best option to master the four-character idiom, if you do not feel like learning ancient Chinese history, is to memorize the exact meaning for each expression.
Also, You can make a connection between English idioms and plenty of four-character idioms. This will make it a lot easier to understand these expressions. However, there are also some that simply don’t have an English counterpart. In my opinion, some of those of the latter are the most difficult to understand because they are the most foreign (unless your native language is Chinese or Japanese).
How To Use
At first, using a four-character idiom in a sentence might seem like an impossible feat. However, it is far less complicated than you think. It is best to simply see these expressions as Sino-Korean nouns (한자어) and you can simply use them as such. This means you sometimes will use the expression as just a noun with a particle. And, other times it is better to use the idiom with 하다 to turn it into a verb.
5 Four-Character Idioms
To help you better understand 사자성어 (Hanja: 四字成語) and how you can use them, we have created a short list of 10 of these idioms. This list gives you the idiom, written both in Hangeul and Hanja, its meaning and an example of how you can use it. In the future, we want to start writing Korean language bank articles on individual idioms.
- 동분서주 – 東奔西走
Meaning: To busy oneself, to be constantly on the move
Example: 동분서주하느라 건강은 나빠지는 것 같아요. 그래서 곧 쉬기로 했어요. (I think my health is getting worse because I’m busy. So I decided to take a break soon.)
- 일취월장 – 日就月將
Meaning: To make steady progress, to make progress day after day.
Example: 연구원들은 열심히 연구를 해서 지금은 일취월장해요. (The researchers studied hard and now they are making progress.)
- 좌지우지 – 左之右之
Meaning: To have someone on your beck and call, to have someone under your thumb
Example: 사장님의 영악한 성격 때문에 모든 직원들을 좌지우지할 수 있어요. (Because of the boss’s shrewd personality, he can control all his employees.)
- 심사숙고 – 深思熟考
Meaning: Careful consideration, contemplation
Example: 심사숙고 후에 마침내 결심했어요. (After careful consideration, I finally made up my mind.)
- 작심삼일 – 作心三日
Meaning: Short-lived resolve, unsteady plan
Example: 매번 운동을 하겠다고 다짐을 하지만 작심삼일 이예요. (Every time I make a promise to exercise, it’s only for a few days.)