(Originally published November 2013)
The names of different countries are one of the first things that new students of Korean learn. After all, one of the first things a Korean would ask a foreigner is “What country are you from?”
One quickly realizes that a lot of country names end in the sound 국 (“gook”), as in the following examples:
한국 “Han Gook” (韓國): Republic of Korea
미국 “Mi Gook” (美國): USA
영국 “Yeong Gook” (英國): England
중국 “Choong Gook” (中國): China
태국 “Tae Gook” (泰國): Thailand
This is of course no coincidence. The 국 (“gook”) sound comes from the Chinese character for ‘nation’, ‘country’, or ‘kingdom’.
Different etymologies have been given for the character for the origin of this character, so the simplest way to describe it might be by taking a look at its composition:
囗 – Enclosure, represents the border around the country. Inside this border are:
口 – Mouth, possibly represents people
一 – A line, maybe representing the ground, or maybe representing “one” people
戈 – Spear, representing the protection of the people
Here is a picture of the character with each individual part in a different color:
At the very least it is good to know that국 (“gook”) can means nation. Just by knowing this fact it becomes easier to remember the following useful vocabulary words:
국기 “Gook Gi”(國旗): National Flag
國 ‘Nation’ + 旗 ‘Flag’
국내 “Gook Neh”(國內): Domestic
國 ‘Nation’ + 內 ‘Inside’
국제 “Gook Che” (國際): International
國 ‘Nation’ + 際 ‘Border’
국립 “Gook Nip”(國立): National
國 ‘Nation’ + 立 ‘Stand’ or ‘Establish’
국산 “Gook San” (國産): Domestically produced (Made in Korea)
國 ‘Nation’ + 産 ‘Give birth’
국어 “Gook Eoh” (國語): National language
國 ‘Nation’ + 語 ‘Language’
국회 “Gook Hoeh” (國會): The National Assembly (similar to U.S. Congress)
國 ‘Nation’ + 會 ‘Assemble’ or ‘Gather’
외국 “Weh Gook” (外國): Foreign country
外 ‘Outside’ + 國 ‘Nation’
입국 “Ip Gook” (入國): Immigration, Enter a country
入 ‘Enter’ + 國 ‘Nation’
These are just a few of the hundreds of words (Naver.com lists a full 1,722) that use this character.
Lets take a look at the Korean words for Korea, China, and America. First of all we should start with Korea itself, which is generally called 한국 “Han Gook” (韓國) or ‘Nation of the Han (people)’. How Koreans came to be known as the ‘Han’ people is a long and complicated story – which we might have to save for another article.
Though most South Koreans refer to their country as 한국 “Han Gook”, the official name is:
대한민국 (大韓民國): Great+Han+People+Nation, or ‘Republic of Korea’.
It is worth noting that North Koreans do not call their nation한국 “Han Gook”. They still go by Korea’s old name ‘Chosun’조선 (朝鮮). The name “Chosun” itself also has a long and interesting history, but that will also have to be saved for another article.
Next, lets take a look at China- 중국 “Choong Gook” (中國).
중“Choong” means ‘middle’, so 중국 “Choong Gook” simply means ‘middle country’, although ‘middle kingdom’ would probably be a more appropriate translation. It is a reflection of the time when China was considered the center of civilization. This is what Chinese people also call themselves (although the Chinese pronunciation of the characters are different than Korean).
Finally lets take a look at the Korean (and Chinese and Japanese) word for ‘America’, 미국 “Mi Gook” (美國). The character 美 (미 “Mi”) means “Beautiful”, so together the characters for ‘America’ mean ‘Beautiful Nation’. But the Chinese did not give us this name because of our amber waves of grain, and purple mountains majesty. The character for ‘beautiful’ was chosen because of the way it sounds. In Chinese it is pronounced ‘mei’ and was used as a shortened version of ah-MEI-ri-cah. In reality美國 means ‘Mei Country’ more than it does ‘beautiful country’.
One awkward aspect of this character and its pronunciation is that ‘gook’ is a racial slur in English. A common explanation you will come across on the internet is that this term dates back to the Korean war. According to the story, when US troops landed in Korea they were met with cries of “Me-Gook!” (America!) and took this to mean that Koreans were introducing themselves as “Gook”. However usage of the term ‘gook’ goes back well before the Korean war and was used during World War II, and can possibly be traced to Tagalog. The similarity in sound of 국 國 to a racial slur is purely coincidence.