(Originally published July 2013)
The name “Korea” comes from a building and some deer antlers. It’s true, and in this article we are going to discover why.
Koreans call their country ‘Han Gook’ (한국 – 韓國) which means “Nation of Han people”, so why do we call it Korea? Where does this word “Korea” come from anyways?
Korea has a long history that can be traced back thousands of years. Over the course of those millennia different kingdoms rose and fell. In 918 the Koryo (고려 – 高麗) dynasty (sometime spelled Goryeo) was established by King Taejo, and this dynasty lasted until 1392. The name Koryo itself was derived from Koguryo (고구려 -高句麗), one of the ancient Three Kingoms of Korea.
The kingdom of Koryo 고려 became known in the west as ‘Corea’, and eventually ‘Korea’.
The name 고려 is formed from two Han Chinese characters:
高 – 고 – High, tall
麗 – 려 – Beautiful, elegant, fine
The influence of China on Korea was such that Korean clans adopted Chinese names (like “Kim” and “Lee”) and even the kingdoms of Korea were written with Chinese characters (this was before Korea had invented its own alphabet).
With than in mind, let’s take a closer look at the two characters behind the name ‘Korea’.
The idea of “high” or “tall” was originally represented by the ancient Chinese by a carving a picture of a tall building.
It is still easy to imagine a tall building when you look at the character in its current form:
Now let’s take a look at some common vocabulary words that use this character for the meaning “high”:
고등학교 – 高等學校 (‘Go Deung Hak Gyo’): High School
고속 – 高速 (‘Go Sok’): High Speed
고급 – 高級 (‘Go Geup’): high rank, seniority, high level
고층 – 高層 (‘Go Cheung’): High Rise (building)
최고 – 最高 (‘Choi Go’): The Best
You can see how each of these words relates to something “high” in them, and each has the고 (‘go’) sound in them.
For what it’s worth, 고 – 高 is the 22nd most common last name in Korea (which isn’t saying much, but at least if you meet a Korean with the last name of 고 or ‘Ko’ you will know what it means!)
So the ‘Ko’ in ‘Korea’ means ‘high’. Now lets look at the ‘-rea’ part of ‘Korea’.
The ‘-rea’ part comes from 려 – 麗 which is actually pronounced something like “ryuh”. It means ‘beautiful’, ‘fine’, and ‘elegant’. This character evolved from ancient Chinese inscriptions of deer with beautiful antlers:
It’s a little hard to visualize, isn’t it? In each picture there are 2 deer, shown from the side, their legs pointing to the left. Above the deer are the antlers. These carvings evolved over time to the modern form we use today:
Unlike 고 (高), the character for 려 (麗) isn’t used in very many common Korean words. The one you are most likely to encounter is:
화려(하다) – 華麗 (‘Hwa-ryuh Hada’): Fancy, showy, brilliant, colorful
There are less common words that use this character, and they all have similar meanings:
미려 – 美麗 (‘Mi-ryuh’): Beauty, elegance, gracefulness
수려(하다) – 秀麗 (‘Su-ryuh Hada’): graceful, beautiful, handsome.
장려(하다) – 壯麗 (‘Jang-ryuh’): splendid, magnificent, grand, imposing
So as it turns out, Korea really does come from a tall building and some deer antlers… in a manner of speaking anyways.