English Instructor at the Department of General Education
I study Korean in my free time. Lately, I have been particularly interested in neologisms (신조어). Studying neologisms has for me been a good way to learn about contemporary Korean culture and current affairs.
One rather controversial word I learned recently is 꼰대 (kkondae). While kkondae is not technically a neologism, its usage has become much more common in recent years, and with that its meaning has shifted. Decades ago, the word was used by youths to refer to older, usually male, figures like teachers or fathers. In recent years, its meaning has become more specific and it has come to carry quite negative connotations (어감). Today, if you hear a young person complaining about a kkondae, they are referring to an older person who arrogantly forces their (perhaps outdated) ideas onto others.
Many young people in Korea feel their opinions and lived experience is not respected by their elders. Many older people in Korea feel the younger generation fails to treat them with the appropriate amount of reverence. This is, of course, a serious issue. But that doesn’t stop young people from having some fun with it. Just google “꼰대” or it’s humorous and equally dismissive cousin “나 때는 말이야”, and you’ll find countless memes and comics centered on the theme.
Usually, words loaded with so much cultural baggage are difficult to translate. However, in the case of kkondae, there is an English word that provides an almost perfect match. That word is “boomer”. Just like kkondae, boomer did not originally carry the negative connotations that it does today. Boomer is short for “baby boomer”, and, according to Merriam-Webster dictionary, refers to “a person born in the U.S. following the end of World War II (usually considered to be in the years 1946-1964).” Also just like kkondae, boomer has come to carry negative connotations in recent years.
The similarities don’t stop there. Much like in Korea, young people in the U.S. often use memes to express their frustrations. Just as young Koreans disparage older folks with kkondae and “나 때는 말이야” memes, young Americans do the same with “Ok boomer" memes.
Credit: Elora Becker/The Occidental
As the cartoon above shows, saying “Ok boomer” is like saying “alright, whatever” to someone you feel has disrespected you or is acting unreasonably. It’s a shorter way of saying, “I’ve already heard you say that a million times, and I don’t need to hear it again.”
The bigger question is, where does all this intergenerational hostility come from, and how do we solve it? I won’t pretend to know the answer. I only know that as with any disagreement, dialogue must be the starting point. Memes and comics are fun and can help us relieve stress and vent our frustrations, but it is important not to dismiss whole groups of people based only on age. I like to think about the elderly people in my life and reflect on how I am thankful for them (even if we sometimes can’t understand each other!) We’re all humans, after all—flawed always, lovely sometimes.