This month we are going to take a look at a character that means nothing. I mean it literally means ‘nothing’! In Koreand is pronounced무 (“Mu”) and when combined with other characters it takes on the meaning of “un-“or “non-“.
The modern form of this character has a long evolution and originates from pictographs of people dancing:
To see how this character is used let’s take a look at the Korean word 무리 (無理 – “Mu-Ri”) which means “Impracticable, unreasonable, excessive”. The first part of the word 무 (無 – “mu”) means ‘nothing’, or ‘un-‘and the second part 리 (理 – ‘ri’) means ‘logic’ or ‘reason’. When they are combined무리 (“mu-ri”) literally means something devoid of reason or logic. You can make this into a verb by adding하다 (“Ha-da”) to it:
무리하다 (“Mu-ri Ha-da”): Impracticable, unreasonable
The Korean word무사 (無事 – “Mu-sa”) means ‘safe, intact, unharmed’ and is generally used with하다 (“Ha-da”) to make it a verb; i.e. 무사하다 (“Mu-sa Ha-da”). The first part of the word 무 (無 – “mu”) again means ‘nothing’, or ‘un-‘ and the second part 사 (事 – “sa”) means ‘incident’ or ‘something that happens’. So when combined, 무사 (無事 – “Mu-sa”) literally means ‘nothing happens’. In other words, something that is safe and unharmed is something to which ‘nothing happened’.
Of you can add ‘mu’ to the front of a verb to make the opposite verb. For example the word관심 (關心 – “Gwan-Shim”) meas ‘interest’, like when you are interested in something. If you add무 (無 – “mu”) to the beginning you can make the word 무관심(無關心 – “Mu-Gwan-Shim”) which means “Disinterest”. And again if you add하다 (“Ha-da”) to that you can make it a verb:
무관심하다 (“Mu-Gwan-Shim Ha-da”): To be disinterested, uninteresting
Another example is the word 무책임 (無責任 – “Mu-Chaek-Im”) which means ‘Irresponsibility’. In this case we just took the word for ‘responsibility’ 책임 (責任 – “Chaek-Im”) and added the무 (無 – “mu”) to the front to change it from ‘responsibility’ to ‘irresponsibility’.
Here are some other common Korean words with무 (無 – “mu”) in them:
무궁화 (無窮花 – “Mu-Gung-Hwa”): Rose of Sharon, the National flower of Korea
무료 (無料 – “Mu-Ryo”): Free of charge
무의미하다 (無意味 – “Mu-I-Mi Ha-da”): Meaningless, pointless, senseless, useless
무조건 (無條件 – “Mu-Jo-Geon”): Unconditionally
I was in LA’s Koreatown with my family when I noticed this character on a big sign. I couldn’t help but take a picture in front of it!
I hope that knowing what무 (無 – “mu”) means makes learning these vocabulary words easier. Have a word or character that you would like to know more about? Send your questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. And this month I would like to wish a Happy Birthday to myself! If you see me in town come up and give me a high five.
NOTE: Unfortunately the picture of me and the kids didn’t make it into the print version of the article for some reason. Which means that last part about me taking a picture didn’t really make any sense. Oh well!