Caveat: 누은나무에 열매 안연다

I have been neglecting my Korean aphorisms, for this past year. That should change – just because I’ve left Korea doesn’t mean I intended to abandon the Korean language.

I’ll try to return to a once-a-week habit. Saturday seems like a good day to make “aphorism day.” Here, then, is a Korean aphorism from my book of aphorisms, and relevant to my new lifestyle.

누은나무에 열매 안연다 yeol.mae an.yeon.da
lying-tree-FROM fruit NOT-open
A fallen tree does not yield fruit.

I am of some doubt about what verb it is at the end. The best guess is 열다, “open,” conjugated in the plain present indicative. The dictionary doesn’t suggest that “yield” (as in yield/give fruit or profits) as a possible meaning. But I could see it as an extended meaning, metaphorically, in the sense that a tree “opens up” and gives its fruit.

The aphorism book suggests the pragmatic meaning is parallel to “nothing ventured, nothing gained.” I’m not sure I quite see that, but I guess so. I would rather imagine the point being that you have to think about the future – if you cut the tree now, you’ll not get any fruit in the future. That’s not exactly the same as “nothing ventured, nothing gained.” But it’s related.

Regardless, I think the aphorism-creator wasn’t thinking of all the firewood you can get. I speak from experience.

Caveat: 잘될거야! 걱정마~

Curt and I were discussing my situation and imminent departure, and all the accompanying uncertainties.

He used the phrase, 잘될거야! 걱정마~ which he helpfully wrote down for me because he knows I learn best visually.


I more or less understood it but had never tried to parse it grammatically.

잘될거야! 걱정마
well-become-FUT-BE-FAM(?)! worry-DON’T
It’ll turn out alright. Don’t worry.

The “-야” verbal ending (not to be confused with vocative -야, which attaches to nouns) is one that I see and hear all the time, but I’ve never seen it explained in any of my grammar books.  I’ve labeled it “BE-FAM” above, for “BE, familiar” – meaning it seems to be a kind of slangy version of the copula that does’t get explained in grammar books. Or maybe I’m wrong and it’s something else, but anyway, I get the meaning of it.

Later I accused him of “irrational optimism,” which he took badly, but in fact I see that as a positive trait: irrational optimism is stronger than rational optimism, because the latter is subject to sudden dissolution in the face of facts.

[daily log: walking, 7.5km; carrying heavy box to post office, 0.5km]

Caveat: 새도 가지를 가려 앉는다

I found this aphorism in my book of aphorisms.

새도 가지를 가려 앉는다 ga.ji.reul ga.ryeo anj.neun.da
bird-EVEN branch-OBJ be-picky-FIN sit-PRES
Even a bird is picky [when choosing] a branch to sit on.

This advocates for the thoughtful, intentional life, I think. One should choose one’s place, setting, friends, career with care.

I’m not sure what an equivalent English aphorism might be.

[daily log: walking, 7km]

Caveat: 자는 범 코침 주기

I ran across this aphorism in my book of aphorisms.

자는 범 코침 주기
ja.neun beom ko.chim
sleep-PRESPART tiger nose-needle give-GER
[It’s like] giving a poke at the nose of a sleeping tiger.

My book says this is similar to “Let sleeping dogs lie.” One shouldn’t provoke those more powerful. I’m not sure these are exactly the same, but good enough.

[daily log: walking, 1km]

Caveat: 도둑 맞고 사립문 고친다

I found this aphorism in my aphorism book.

도둑 맞고 사립문 고친다
do.duk mat.go go.chin.da
thief visit-CONJ hedge-gate repair-PRES
The thief visits and [then you] repair the hedge gate.

Clearly, this is the same as “Closing the barn door after the horse has already left the barn.”

I’d say more, but that horse has bolted.

[daily log: walking, 6.5km]

Caveat: 게으른 선비 책장 넘기기

I saw this aphorism in my book of aphorisms.

게으른 선비 책장 넘기기 chaek.jang
be-lazy-PPART scholar book-page turn-over-GER
[Like] a lazy scholar turning a book’s pages [to the end].

This means a student or worker who is just “going through the motions” or “watching the clock,” only interested in doing the minimum necessary to get by.

I have been like that, in some stages of my life.

[daily log: walking, 1.5km]

Caveat: 누워서 침 뱉기

I learned this aphorism from my book of aphorisms.

누워서 침 뱉기
nu.weo.seo chim
lie-on-one’s-back-SO spit spit-PRES
“[One] spits while lying on one’s back.”

This is glossed as “to cut one’s nose to spite one’s face,” but I think a closer parallel is “pissing in the wind.”

Sometimes this happens.

[daily log: walking, 6.5km]

Caveat: 시어미에게 역정나서 개 옆구리 찬다

I learned this aphorism from my book of aphorisms.

시어미에게 역정나서 개 옆구리 찬다 gae chan.da
mother-in-law-DATIVE anger-happen-SO dog flank kick-PRES
[She’s] mad at the mother-in-law, so [she] kicks the dog.

This means the same as “shit rolls downhill,” I reckon. It’s the idea of the pecking order, or the food chain, or whatever you want to call it. The traditional Korean household is hierarchical, and the mother-in-law outranks her daughter-in-law. So the daugher-in-law has to maintain the utmost respect and deference toward the former, and when she’s mad, she has to vent her anger elsewhere. Poor dog.

[daily log: walking, 6.5km]

Caveat: 주린 고양이가 쥐를 만났다

I learned this aphorism from my book of aphorisms.

주린 고양이가 쥐를 만났다
ju.rin jwi.reul man.nat.da
starving-PRPART cat-SUBJ mouse-OBJ meet-PAST-FIN
“The starving cat met the mouse.”

This is where the poor man finds an unexpected boon. A stroke of luck.

I’m not quite sure of the exact context of this. Does it just apply to financial or material luck? Or could it mean other types of luck, too? Did the cat meet a mouse when I won my unexpected victory against cancer?

[daily log: walking, 7km]

Caveat: 시루에 물길어 붓기

I learned this aphorism from my book of aphorisms.

시루에 물길어 붓기 mul.gil.eo
rice-cake-steamer-INTO water-fill-INF pour-GER
[Like] pouring water trying to fill a rice cake steamer.

A rice cake steamer (“shiru”) is a perforated ceramic pot. So you can’t fill it – it has holes. So this aphorism means any fruitless task.

That’s somewhat like teaching my HS1-T cohort.

[daily log: walking, 7km]

Caveat: 담벽하고 말하는 셈이다

I saw this aphorism in my book of aphorisms.

담벽하고 말하는 셈이다
dam.byeok.ha.go mal.ha.neun sem.i.da
brick-wall-WITH talk-PPART guess-BE
[One could] guess it’s [like] talking to a brick wall.

This is exactly the same as the English expression, “like talking to a brick wall.” It’s not so often I find exactly matching aphorisms. Perhaps dealing with dense individuals is a human universal.

[daily log: walking, 1km]

Caveat: 거북이 잔등에 털을 긁는다

I learned this aphorism from my book of aphorisms.

거북이 잔등에 털을 긁는다
geo.buk.i jan.deung.e teol.eul geulk.neun.da
turtle back-LOC fur-OBJ scratch-PRES
[One] scratches the fur on a turtles back.

This means trying to do the impossible. “Trying to shave an egg”? “When pigs fly”?

Something like that.

Don’t try to do impossible things, right?

[daily log: walking, 1km]

Caveat: 총명은 둔필만 못하다

I tried to learn this aphorism from my book of aphorisms.

총명은 둔필만 못하다
chong.myeong.eun mot.ha.da
intelligence-TOPIC poor-handwriting-ONLY unable-do
“Intelligence can’t even do as well as poor handwriting.”

Even if you’re smart, if you don’t take notes or document things well, you won’t get far. This comes down to “diligence is worth more than smarts,” and is thus somewhat similar to those sayings in the vein of “Success is 99% perspiration, 1% inspiration.” I suppose I myself suffer from this shortcoming. I’m bad at taking notes. I am often trying to teach my students to take notes, and realizing how inadequate I am to the task, myself.

[daily log: walking, 6.5km]

Caveat: 냉수 먹고 잣죽 트림한다

I learned this aphorism from my aphorism book.

냉수 먹고 잣죽 트림한다 meok.go jat.juk teu.rim.han.da
cold-water drink-CONJ pine-nut-porridge belch-up-PRES
“Gulp down cold water and belch up pine nut porridge.”

This is a little bit hard to understand, without some cultural reference. Apparently in old Korea, belching was a way to indicate satisfaction with a meal. It’s not that that’s not true in the West, but it didn’t have the patina of vulgarity that it has in the West – indeed it was specific to even high society.

Pine nut porridge was considered a delicacy. So a young nobleman, too poor to eat well, might gulp down some cold water before entering into company with his peers, thus causing himself to belch in their company. He could then boast of the fine pine nut porridge he’d eaten.

This means to “put on airs” or “make a fine appearance but without any substance.”

[daily log: walking, 6.5km]