5 – Kind of a big deal 大

(Originally published April 2013)

Thousands of years ago, the character for “Big” was drawn as a person with their arms spread wide open. It looked like this:

Today it looks very much the same, which makes it very easy to remember this character’s shape:


Big / Great

The number of Korean words that use this character is vast- the Hanja dictionary on Naver.com lists 4117 different words that use this character! In this article we will take a look at the most common, starting with the official name for South Korea, 대한민국, which literally means “Great Nation of the Han People”.

+ + + = 大韓民國
Great “Han” People Nation Republic of Korea

This name is usually shortened to just 한국, which just means “Han Nation”.

You may have heard of the famous남대문(Namdaemun) market, located in Seoul’s “South Gate”. 남대문 literally means ‘Great Southern Gate’:

+ + = 南大門
South Great Gate / Door Great Southern Gate

A university대학 is a big school of learning, which is reflected in the Hanja:

+ = 大學
Big Learning/ School University / College

The Korean word for ‘continent’ just means large land:

+ = 大陸
Large Ground / earth Continent

Sometimes a new word can be formed by putting대 in front of an existing word. For example, a large city is called a ‘metropolis’, and the word in Korean is just the 대 in front of the word for city (도시):

+ 都市 = 大都市
Large City Major city/ metropolis

Sometimes when 대 can be put in front of words, you can also put the character for ‘small’ instead, to get the opposite. This will make sense once you seen some examples, but first here is the character for small:


This character evolved from a picture of 3 small dots, which looked like this:


Now let’s look at some examples that contrast big and small. Our first example will be ‘large scale’ and ‘small scale’, as in a ‘large scale operation’ or a ‘small scale earthquake’:

+ 規模 = 大規模
규모 대규모
Large Scale Large scale
+ 規模 = 小規模
규모 소규모
Small Scale Small scale

As you can see, we simply replaced the largewith the small to get the newword.

The same is done for minimum and maximum (except in this case and are in the middle):

최대한 최소한
Maximum Minimum

Here is a list of common words with 大 in them. Try and see how many you already knew:

대구 大邱 Daegu city
대기 大氣 The atmosphere, the air
대다수 大多數 Majority (of)
대부분 大部分 Most of, for the most part
대사 大使 Ambassador
대사관 大使館 Embassy
대전 大田 Daejon city
대중 大衆 The (general) public
대중교통 大衆交通 Public[mass] transportation
대중문화 大衆文化 Pop(ular) culture
대체로 大體- Generally, mostly, overall
대통령 大統領 President

It is pretty amazing that such a wide variety of words could something common!


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