"Well-being" in Korean

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The concept of "well-being" has been much discussed among economists, psychologists, and sociologists.  In connection with a major project on notions of well-being worldwide (in Richard Estes and Joseph Sirgy, ed., The History of Well-Being: A Global Perspective [forthcoming from Halloran Philanthropies]), Shawn Arthur and I have been commissioned to write a chapter on ideas about well-being in East Asia.

It has been challenging to find equivalent terms in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, but there are many traditional Chinese notions covering one or more aspects of well-being — though we haven't found any single term that is coterminous, so to speak, with the English expression "well-being".  Be that as it may, the traditional Chinese terms that partially overlap with "well-being" have also been taken up in Sino-Japanese and Sino-Korean vocabulary.  Here are just a few such Sinitic expressions: 安寧 ("peaceful"), 福利 ("welfare"), 平安 ("safe and sound"):  C. ānníng, fúlì, píng'ān / J. annei, fukuri, heian / K. annyeong, bogli, pyeong-an.  It would be easy to come up with a dozen or so additional relevant terms in the Sinitic vocabulary of East Asia.

The biggest surprise of all in our research, however, has been with what has happened to the notion of well-being in Korean.  As I was searching for Korean equivalents, lo and behold, look what I found!

welbing 웰빙

Google Translate and Bing Translator informed me that welbing 웰빙 means "wellness", but it seemed to look suspiciously like nothing else than, well, "well-being".

So I asked Bob Ramsey what was going on, and this was his reply:

Do you know―or are you asking because you DO know―that Koreans have gone nuts over that very imported word (웰빙) now? It’s everywhere you look in South Korea, and it covers all of their faddish food and exercise trends. Try googling the word and you’ll see!

All right, so now I really had to get to the bottom of this, to find out how Korean had leapt out of the circle of Sinitic vocabulary and concepts and entered directly into the realm of English vocabulary.

What is even more perplexing than the ubiquity of welbing 웰빙 in contemporary Korea is the fact that, when you look up "well-being" on the popular web portal Naver, this is what you get:

참살이: well-being. "This word is contained Newly-coined word of the National Institute of the Korean Language. (2004)"

Pronunciation for 참살이:

① cham-sa-ri RR

② ch'am-sa-ri MR

And this is what you'll get for 참살이 on Google Translate:

chamsal-i 참살이 Lifestyle

Now, this is strange.  If you put ch'am-sa-ri 참살이 in the Google search engine, you'll get a measly 1,030,000 hits, but if you enter wel-bing 웰빙, you'll get a mind-boggling 6,380,000 hits.

We have this overwhelming disparity in favor of wel-bing 웰빙, despite the fact that, since 2004, the National Institute of the Korean Language has tried to replace frequently used loanwords with newly created Korean words.

Purification of the Korean Language

In order to remove incorrect loanwords, foreign languages, and Japanese words and to use correct Korean language, some campaigns to purify the Korean language have begun. The Campaign for Cleaning the Korean Language, one of the campaigns to purify the Korean language, began in July 2004.

The National Institute of the Korean Language opened a website for this campaign (www.malteo.net). Every week people choose a loanword or a foreign word which should be substituted for with a correct Korean word, and then suggest and decide on what the correct word should be on the webpage. All 150 loanwords and foreign words are to be corrected through this webpage by the beginning of October, 2007. Those words are being announced through mass media.


Comments from an anonymous colleague:

One of these "pure", new Korean words is chamsal-i / cham-sa-ri / ch'am-sa-ri  참살이.  It is a "calque" or "loan translation" from English into Korean.  "살이" is "living" but I'm surprised they did not use "잘" (chal MR) for "well".  "참살이" does not appear in my large Korean-Korean dictionary and I rather doubt anyone would deliberately coin this term to mean "well being" since the first two syllables "참살" (without the suffix "이" indicating the nominal form of the verb) would be either 斩杀 (behead) or 惨杀 (kill gruesomely) in hanja (sorry, I can't type the full traditional characters here), which conflicts badly with the intended neologism.  By contrast, "잘살다" does appear in the Korean dictionary with approximately that meaning ("to live amply, sufficiently, well-off").  But that doesn't entirely capture the English concept, certainly not as Maslow would see it.

Sung Shin Kim confirms the essential trajectory of what happened:

A brief search online seems to confirm how you described the process: from the translated word to the transliterated one. Chosun.com (09/07, 2004), reported that 참살이 was decided by the National Institute of the Korean Language as a translation of "well-being." What was particular, according to this report,  was that the translation was not done by a few specialists, but picked after public consultation via a website (www.malteo.net). There were apparently 120 other propositions for the translation! Personally I have heard people and media/ads use "welbing," but not 참살이.

I suspect that "well-being" was already much in evidence in Korea before 2004 and that it was its growing popularity that prompted the language purifiers to come up with a "pure" Korean substitute, hence ch'am-sa-ri 참살이.  But it obviously has not caught on, since wel-bing 웰빙 is surging forward, while ch'am-sa-ri 참살이 is getting left in the dust.

For those who are interested in the economic aspects of wel-bing 웰빙, the following article may prove useful:

Hagen Koo, "The Changing Faces of Inequality in South Korea in the Age of Globalization," Korean Studies, 31 (2007), 1-18, especially from page 10 where the author discusses "welbing".  The article examines the effects of the recent economic crisis on social inequality and middle class culture.  It is available through Project Muse here.

Daniel Sou provides a personal look at the coevolution of wel-bing 웰빙 and ch'am-sa-ri 참살이:

I'm not sure how the word "well-being" got translated (when and by whom), but yes many people in Korea are simply using wel-bing 웰빙 for well-being, and some use the word 참살이 (cham-sa-ri). But I bet more people are familiar with 웰빙 than 참살이. Even the news will use 웰빙 over 참살이.

As for the word 참살이, I believe it was the National Institute of Korean Language (http://www.korean.go.kr/eng/) that came up with the word 참살이 for well-being. This is an institute that provides guidelines for standard Korean and, thus, they were probably the first who announced that word. But there should be (no, must be) others who tried to translate well-being into Korean. Now, well, I believe almost everyone is using wel-bing 웰빙 for well-being.

When I first heard about 웰빙, I was staying in the States and I couldn't figure out what it meant until I read the article using the word 웰빙 and saw the matching English word (well-being). It is because 웰빙 is pronounced, as you mentioned, "well-bing" and not "well-bee-ing."

I guess, and this is a really wild guess, that Koreans might feel 참살이 (cham-sa-ri) sounds a bit "rusty" and "old-fashioned" while wel-bing 웰빙 sounds more "edgy" and "modern." Again this is a wild guess, but we can see numerous examples from Korean and Japanese where they simply used the sound of a Western word in order to make it seem a bit more edgy. I really don't think people aren't using the word 참살이 because the translation failed to deliver the English meaning.

Additionally, 참살이 is a Korean word without any Chinese characters. 참 (cham) means "pure," "real," and "good," and 살이 (sa-ri) means "life" or "living condition." Together it could either mean a morally or physically good life (or life style), or both. Personally, I believe this translation best fits the word "well-being."

One more tip. This was also criticized by some Koreans but the problem of all the attention devoted to "well-being" (it's huge!) is more focused on one's physical health, and only a few are using this word to talk about the "quality" of life, which I assume embraces a larger and broader discussion on people's cultural, moral, and spiritual life.

Ross King sums it all up succinctly:

웰빙 ("well-being") is definitely used everywhere all the time, and has been for many years now. The 참살이 sounds like another of the very many well-meaning but ultimately (and swiftly) doomed attempts at stopping the tide–I've never encountered it.

[Thanks to Bill Hannas and Haewon Cho]


  1. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 25, 2014 @ 4:55 pm

    It's not a particularly new word in English, although the google books n-gram viewer suggests it's gotten substantially more popular over the last century or so. There's an entry in George Crabb's _English Synonymes [sic] Explained_ (published 1818) trying to distinguish the semantic nuances of well-being from its near-synonyms (or so Crabb perceived according to the usage of his own day) welfare, prosperity, and happiness.

  2. John said,

    July 25, 2014 @ 5:02 pm

    The faddishness of welbing in Korean reminds me of the meteoric rise of LOHAS (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LOHAS) in Chinese. A fairly obscure English acronym was plucked out by some savvy marketer about a decade ago, given an extremely appealing approximation in Chinese characters (樂活) and boom, now it's everywhere. On bilingual menus and catalogues you would often see the world LOHAS (with erratic capitalization) with no explanation, because obviously everybody in the English-speaking world knows it right?

  3. David Morris said,

    July 25, 2014 @ 5:56 pm

    While in Korea in 2006-8 I noticed restaurants offering 'well-being food' on a shop-front sign or the menu. I commented to a Korean colleague that that was a strange phrase in standard English. I think I remember seeing 'well-being shoes', too.

  4. Jay said,

    July 26, 2014 @ 2:16 am

    How about 幸福 in Chinese?

  5. David Marjanović said,

    July 26, 2014 @ 7:04 am

    Similarly, fitness and more recently wellness are now common in German. French instead translates "wellness" as the straightforward bien-être.

  6. Jongseong Park said,

    July 26, 2014 @ 8:51 am

    I second Daniel Sou's reaction in not automatically matching 웰빙 welbing to "well-being" when I first came across it.

    According to the official transcription guidelines (외래어 표기법 oerae-eo pyogi-beop), the English term "well-being" should be written 웰비잉 welbiing instead of 웰빙 welbing. My guess is that it's a hypercorrection arising from the fact that before the current transcription guidelines were introduced in 1986, long vowels in English used to be written by doubling the vowels in Korean. Greece used to be written 그리이스 geuriiseu before; now it's 그리스 geuriseu. Of course, "being" is two syllables in the original English and moreover the two vowels are different (although mapped to the same Korean vowel), so there is no reason to contract it into a single syllable. But whoever created the fad chose the wrong spelling and it stuck.

    I personally can't stand the term 웰빙 welbing. Besides the fact that the spelling just looks wrong, it's an almost meaningless buzzword that people stick on anything.

  7. Jongseong Park said,

    July 26, 2014 @ 9:38 am

    I've now remembered that a scholar from the National Institute of the Korean Language, no less, has written in a periodical published by the very institute that the form 웰빙 welbing is correct! The reasoning for this? She thinks that well-being is pronounced [welbi:ŋ] [sic]:

    외래어의 장모음 표기 (in Korean)

    많은 사람들이 well-being의 발음이 [welbi:ŋ]이므로 ‘*웰비잉’으로 적는 것이 옳지 않은가 궁금해하는데, 외래어 표기법에서는 장모음의 장음은 따로 표기하지 않는다는 원칙이 있어 ‘웰빙’으로 적는다.

    Many people wonder if it isn't correct to write *웰비잉 welbiing because well-being is pronounced [welbi:ŋ], but in the Loanword Transcription Rules (외래어 표기법 oerae-eo pyogi-beop) there is a principle that long vowels are not specially indicated, hence 웰빙 welbing.

    Well-being, of course, is pronounced /ˌwɛl.ˈbiː.ɪŋ/ in English, using the IPA symbols used for English in Wikipedia. The Loanword Transcription Rules unfortunately uses the older system of writing the short vowel of KIT as /i/ rather than /ɪ/, which might suggest that the difference with the vowel of FLEECE /iː/ is simply one of quantity, and I think this might have contributed to this poor scholar's confusion.

    I actually wrote a blog post in Korean about this very issue a few years back when I still was an active blogger:
    '웰빙'과 '리니지'라는 표기 분석 (in Korean)

    That post also dealt with 리니지 riniji, the Korean spelling for the video game Lineage. That one is more ambiguous because Lineage is pronounced either /ˈlɪn.i.ɪdʒ/, in three syllables, or /ˈlɪn.jɪdʒ/, in two.

    There is a picture I used in the blog post of a sign of a supermarket which says 웰빙 마트 welbing mateu in Korean, and "Wellbing Mart" in English, with a proofreader's mark showing that an "e" should be inserted so that it should read "Wellbeing Mart". It's a playful acknowledgement that 웰빙 welbing sounds ill-matched to the English "well-being":


    I didn't take the photo, but I know that supermarket, which is in the Itaewon district of Seoul close to the U.S. army base and frequented by expats.

  8. Jongseong Park said,

    July 26, 2014 @ 9:56 am

    Oh, I forgot to address the semantics.

    Even though the source of the loanword is "well-being", 웰빙 welbing as used in Korean definitely means something close to "wellness", assuming that it has any real meaning left at all. You cannot use it in any situation where you would use "well-being" in English that I can think of. So Google Translate and Bing Translator are certainly correct to translate 웰빙 welbing as "wellness".

    삶의 질 salm-ui jil, literally "quality of life", is probably the term most appropriate for the sense of well-being at least as discussed by economists, sociologists, and the like. 질 質 jil "quality" is the only Sino-Korean element of that expression. Incidentally, Korean Wikipedia, in its article on 삶의 질 salm-ui jil, says that the term 웰빙 welbing began to be used in Korean around 2002. This seems about right.

  9. JS said,

    July 26, 2014 @ 11:17 am

    I have a mixed intuition about being and -ing after /i:/ more generally; I feel like Jongseong Park's /bi.ɪŋ/ is somehow more proper but am sure I tend to say /bi.iŋ/ and that there are many for whom the word is monosyllabic /biŋ/ (though this is more clearly non-standard).

    Second Jay's feeling that 幸福 (adj./n.) is an important Chinese word to consider; it is often poorly rendered as "happ(y/iness)" in English when "well-being" or something similar would be far more appropriate.

  10. Jongseong Park said,

    July 26, 2014 @ 11:59 am

    JS is right about there being a range of ways that "being" is phonetically realized in English, where I would agree that a monosyllabic [bi(:)ŋ] is a possibility in rapid speech at least for some speakers. The weak vowel of the second syllable is readily assimilated into the preceding strong vowel (hence JS's [bi.iŋ]), and the peak of prominence of the original second syllable is gradually smoothed away until it is no longer distinguishable as a separate syllable.

    But it's understood that for transcriptions of loanwords into Korean, we are to take the citation forms as the source—the dictionary pronunciations, so to speak. And for "being", this is definitely /ˈbiː.ɪŋ/ with two syllables. Note also that I'm using slashes (//) for the phonemic representation here to indicate that there is some level of abstraction already with the surface phonetic details not indicated, without claiming that every distinction I've made is truly 'phonemic'.

  11. Ned Danison said,

    July 26, 2014 @ 5:44 pm

    @John: Your comment about LOHAS (after all, every English speaker knows this) reminds me of the use of "netizen" (网民) in articles translated from Chinese to English. It's easy enough to guess what netizen means, but the impression that it has wide English currency is way mistaken.

  12. John said,

    July 26, 2014 @ 9:05 pm

    @Ned: Definitely! I think somebody needs to write a primer on PRC English, just like the primer on EU English that's floating around. (Other candidates: "reform and opening-up," "scientific" approaches to whatever, "municipality"…)

  13. Ellen K. said,

    July 27, 2014 @ 12:25 pm

    For some of us English speakers, the -ing ending standardly has the same vowel as the word "be", regardless of what precedes it, and especially so in nouns. I might say /ˈbiː.ɪn/ when "being" is a verb, but not when it's a noun. And though I always think of "being" as two syllables, I can imagine some people might hear it as a single syllable with a long vowel. (If they speak a language variety with vowel length distinctions.)

  14. Steve Bacher said,

    July 27, 2014 @ 1:56 pm

    Agree with Ellen K. on the tendency for "being" in English to be pronounced with a single vowel. Hence the proliferation of puns on the phrase "human being" / "human bean".

    Re Jeongsong Park's observation on transcription sources, it's noteworthy that the Korean transcriptions often reflect English pronunciations more honored in the breach than the observance. E.g. "news" is 뉴스 (nyuseu) even though I can't recall any English speaker ever actually saying "nyooze"; the increasingly frequent "super-" modifier is 슈퍼 (syupeo).

  15. Jongseong Park said,

    July 27, 2014 @ 3:19 pm

    @Steve Bacher: "news" is robustly /njuːz/ in Received Pronunciation (RP) and Australian English. Even in American English, which is predominantly yod-dropping after /n, d, t, l, s, z/, some speakers (mostly older) don't drop the yod. Still more that do drop the yod don't have a complete neutralization, retaining remnants of the yod, either as a faint glide, diphthongization, or a fronting of the /uː/ (well, even more than the usual /uː/, which is fronter than the cardinal /u/ anyway).

    The form 슈퍼 syupeo reflects the increasingly old-fashioned pronunciation /ˈsjuːp.ə(r)/ which is a minority pronunciation even in RP. Similar examples include 슈트 syuteu "suit", or 프로슈머 peurosyumeo "prosumer" (an Alvin Toffler neologism), although for "consumer" (which "prosumer" presumably rhymes with) perhaps a majority of RP speakers will still have the yod, I reckon.

    But nowadays, the form 수퍼 supeo is seen more and more for "super-" in Korean, including in respectable publications, although it has a long way to go to catch up to the entrenched 슈퍼 syupeo. The Korean contraction for "supermarket" will probably always be 슈퍼 syupeo.

    If a do-over was possible I would have dropped the yod after /s/ in transcribing English loanwords into Korean. There is an ambiguity with transcribing the yod because sy- is also the way to write the SH sound /ʃ/ of English in Korean (슈 syu is pronounced [ɕʰ(j)u] in Korean). So 슈트 syuteu, besides "suit", can also be a way to write "shoot". This spelling is restricted to the baseball sense of a "shootball", a name for a type of a slider that probably comes from Japanese; "shoot" in the usual sense in other sports or in film is conventionally spelled 슛 shyut even though it doesn't follow the transcription rules.

    "Nude" becomes the yod-less 누드 nudeu in Korean though, but I think many English speakers who never drop the yod in "news", "nuclear", etc. nonetheless have a yod-less "nude".

    In any case, most well-established loanwords in Korean from the 외래어 표기법 oerae-eo pyogi-beop era (i.e. since 1986) tend to follow the RP pronunciation given in English dictionaries of the early 20th century. Hence no yod in 플루트 peulluteu "flute" or 루지 ruji "luge", since the yod was lost early on in these words, though "Aleutian" is 알류샨 allyusyan (this irregular form predates the current transcription rules and does not follow its treatment of the vowels).

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