My favourite Korean word is 없어요 (pronounced “ops-aw-yo”).
It always makes me smile. You might see it translated as “it isn’t here”, but it can also have a broader meaning like “there isn’t any”, and the even broader “it doesn’t exist” or “no”. And it is used all the time. You can hear this word dozens of times in a day because of its versatility.
Do you have bread? Ops-aw-yo.
What is it in English? Ops-aw-yo.
Is Jennifer here? Ops-aw-yo.
Do you know the answer? Ops-aw-yo.
I use it often myself, in just about every situation imaginable. It’s a very basic way of communicating with people in shops and restaurants. But it’s also something of a joke word amongst us foreigners, mainly because of how often it’s used, and we find ourselves inserting it into every conversation just for the hell of it, or saying it together in a chorus when we need more drinks (“Soju ops-aw-yo!”).
But my personal best one so far was in a taxi the other day. I was feeling all pleased with myself because I was managing to have a small-talky conversation with the driver, all in Korean, and for once I was understanding everything and not making hopeful guesses based on context.
You’re American? he asked.
No, I’m from Ireland, I told him.
Where’s Ireland? Europe?
Yes. Next to England.
What language do you speak there?
Ah. You’re an English teacher?
Where’s your school?
How long have you been in Daejeon?
5 months. I like it here.
There was a brief pause as the taxi driver looked pleased at me liking his city, and I looked pleased at being able to have a conversation in Korean.
Then he said something I couln’t quite follow, ending with the verb 있어요 (“ees-aw-yo”), which is basically the opposite of ops-aw-yo, and in a questioning tone. I was at a loss. I don’t understand, I told him apologetically. He rephrased his question a couple of times, and just as I twigged that he was asking me if I’m married or have a boyfriend, he suddenly recalled some movie-learned English.
I love you, I love you! Ees-aw-yo?
Ah, I said, realising that perhaps I’d said “I like you” instead of “I like it here”. No. I love you, I love you: ops-aw-yo.
My friends loved this one when I told them about it. No “I love you”s. “I love you”s, ops-aw-yo. It’s so pathetic!
Oh yes, pathetic! That’s just what I was going for. Coolness, ops-aw-yo.