Degrees of spiciness

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Tim Leonard sent in the following photograph of a Korean restaurant sign:

I present the transcription and translation of the sign in two slightly different versions:


ttekpokki yoli cenmwuncem 뗙볶이 요리 전문점
("stir-fried rice cake specialty store")

ttekpokki maywun leypeyl 떡볶이 매운 레벨
("stir-fried rice cake — the level of spiciness")

Level 1 haswu 하 수 (下手)*
("an unskilled player; a low-grade player")

Level 2 phyengmin 평민 (平民)
("a commoner")

Level 3 cwungswu 중수 (中手)
("a mid-grade player")

Level 4 koswu 고수 (高手)
("mastery/ a master, a high-grade player")

Level 5 cicon 지존 (至尊)
("the most revered")

Level 6 choin 초인 (超人)
("a superman, Übermensch")

Level 7 kep 겁 (劫)
("a kalpa, eternity")

*hanja (Chinese characters) added


Korean Romanization McCune-Reischauer Romanization Hanja English translation
1 hasu hasu 下手 ‘unskilled’ (as used in games, martial arts)
2 pyeongmin p'yŏngmin 平民 ‘commoner’
3 jungsu chungsu 中手 ‘middle ranking (player)’
(a neologism, not commonly used, but clear in comparison with 1 and 4)
4 gosu kosu 高手 ‘master’
5 jijon chijon 至尊 ‘most revered’
6 choin ch'o in 超人 ‘super-human’
7 geop kŏp ‘terror’**
(the only grade not referring to a person)

떡 볶 이 요리 전문점
(Korean Romanization) tteokbokki yori jeonmunjeom
(M-R) ttŏkpokki yori chŏnmunjŏm

떡 볶 이 매운 레벨
(Korean Romanization) tteokbokki maeun lebel
(M-R) ttŏkpokki maeun lepel

**This literally means "scary", but as a slang term it seems to imply "extraordinary" or extreme".

I'm afraid that I would fall somewhere between level 1 and level 2, and if I tried level 7 I would end up in the eternal hereafter.

For Koreans, though, it seems that such specialized small restaurants for spicy rice cakes are popular among young people these days, and one explanation is because they are looking for something that can reduce or release their stress, which in this case is achieved by eating spicy food.

[Thanks to Haewon Cho, Sung Shin Kim, and Daniel Sou]


  1. bratschegirl said,

    November 1, 2015 @ 2:15 pm

    This is pretty much exactly how one devotee of spicy food might describe various levels thereof in actual casual conversation with another person. Epic translation success from that point of view.

  2. Wentao said,

    November 1, 2015 @ 3:17 pm

    Is the last level kep 劫 "a kalpa" or geop 怯 "terror"? The buddhist reference of the former sounds really cool.

  3. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 1, 2015 @ 5:25 pm

    I'm with bratschegirl.

  4. K Chang said,

    November 1, 2015 @ 7:10 pm

    Interesting. 劫 in Chinese is always linked with disasters and suffering such as 劫難. While the original Hindu / Buddhism meaning of kalpa is like aeon / infinity as a measure of time, it's rarely used in Chinese that way except as referring to suffering through multiple eternities, but it's also used as everlasting love or such.

    There's even a Chinese horror novel published in 2008 called 万劫

  5. Tim Leonard said,

    November 1, 2015 @ 9:06 pm

    I called it "perfectly idiomatic" but bratschegirl's "epic translation success" is even better.

  6. 번하드 said,

    November 1, 2015 @ 9:53 pm

    Hmmm, I looked around a bit and found a review at — from reading that blog post it seems that the 겁 here does indeed refer to the Buddhist term rather than fear.
    I checked my photo collection because the whole thing reminded me of a place in Daejeon 2010, but that one only had 5 levels.

  7. Matt McIrvin said,

    November 1, 2015 @ 9:58 pm

    I'm guessing I'd start on level 3 as a way of judging their calibration, then move up to 4 if I think it's warranted. Probably not higher.

    There's a restaurant called Southeast Asia in Lowell, Massachusetts that has a buffet of various items with labels identifying them as "mild", "hot" and "blazing hot". I have found that the "hot" items are fine for me, but the "blazing hot" labels need to be taken seriously; I can only stand tiny bites of those things and need time to recover afterward. I've had co-workers who piled their plates high with them.

    Human tolerance for such things varies over orders of magnitude. Levels of spice that are barely detectable to me are intolerably hot to my father.

  8. Jason said,

    November 2, 2015 @ 2:48 am

    Sorry: if it was an idiomatic translation, level 1 would be "tyro", level 6 would be "Superman" and level 7 would be "Chuck Norris".

  9. AlexB said,

    November 2, 2015 @ 3:34 am

    This reminds me of the XKCD chart for converting temperatures to metric (top left chart of the cartoon)

  10. Jongseong Park said,

    November 3, 2015 @ 8:17 am

    I should point out that Kalpa or 겁 (劫) is the name of the restaurant here (look at the top of the photo), which is why it is used in this scale. It is too obscure to be used in this sense otherwise, as most Koreans will not be familiar with the term. One would probably guess that the 겁 here is 怯 "terror" if one was not told about the name of the restaurant, as seems to have been the case with your second informant.

    Some typos and transcription errors to correct:

    뗙볶이 should be 떡볶이 tteokbokki. No reason to letterspace it as 떡 볶 이 either.
    레벨 is actually rebel in RR, lebel in MR.
    하 수 and ch'o in should be written without spaces as 하수 and ch'oin

  11. David Morris said,

    November 3, 2015 @ 8:33 am

    This evening in a discussion class at a Korean university, one student said she hates spicy food and rarely eats it. Her friend said that she loves the spicier the better, and once swallowed pure capsaicin and ended up in hospital.

  12. shubert said,

    November 4, 2015 @ 11:23 am

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