Human rights implications of a Korean word for "child"

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"Newly coined word 'rini' demeans children: rights watchdog", by Park Han-na, The Korea Herald (May 4, 2022)

Popular internet slang words derived from the Korean word “eorini,” which means children, may promote negative stereotypes and discrimination against children, the country’s human rights watchdog said Tuesday.

The National Human Rights Commission of Korea urged related government bodies to find ways for the public to refrain from using the newly coined words that compare a beginner in a certain field to a child, saying it can demean children.

“Eorini” is a formal way of referring to children, according to the National Institute of Korean Language dictionary.

In recent years, internet users started to coin new words using “rini” from eorini like a suffix to refer to someone who has just begun to take an interest, or have a low skill level in, a certain area. For example, a novice in cooking is described as “yorini,” a compound of “yori,” meaning cooking in Korean and “rini.” A beginner in stock investment is called as “jurini” – with the prefix from the Korean word for stocks, “jushik.“ A layperson in real estate investment is called “burini” – with the prefix from “budongsan,” or real estate.

The watchdog called on the Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism to come up with promotional and educational measures to prevent the use of the word “rini” in official documents of public institutions.

The ruling came after a petitioner filed complaints with the rights body in May later [recte last] year over the use of “rini,” arguing that the term instigates discrimination against children by viewing them as “imperfect and immature” beings.

The watchdog, while advising public agencies not to use such terms, dismissed the petition itself, saying that the case had no specific victims or damages to deal with.

In response, the Culture Ministry took a cautious stance. “There is also the thought that it is unreasonable to view it as a discriminatory expression, as it appears that the word is being used to describe people affectionately rather than to belittle them.” [VHM:  !!!]

Something about these accusations against "rini" as discriminatory just didn't ring true for me, so I thought I'd better dig a bit deeper.

The problematic terms are neologisms formed from using "rini" as a suffix signifying "tyro".  It turns out that "eorini", whence "rini" is derived, is itself a word that was relatively recently created for the express purpose of enhancing children's human rights standing:


Univerbation of 어린 (eorin, who is young, realis adnominal form) +‎ (i, person), coined by Korean children's rights activist Bang Jeong-hwan, who felt that (ae, child) did not sufficiently represent a child's personhood.



Revised Romanization                     eorini

Revised Romanization (translit.)       eolin'i

McCune–Reischauer                         ŏrini

Yale Romanization                            elin.i


어린이 (eorini)

    1. (often polite) child
    1. Synonyms: (ae, kid, child, usual colloquial form), 아동(兒童) (adong, child, formal, legalistic)
      Antonym: 어른 (eoreun, adult)

Usage notes

    • Typically refers to children of kindergarten and elementary school age.


When concern for children's personhood boils down to dissatisfaction with the traditional word for "child" (ae 애) and the resultant need to coin a new word that is better suited for the purpose, one begins to wonder how far applied linguists (??) can go with such lexicographical tampering before confusing everyone and jeopardizing the integrity of natural language.


Selected readings


[Thanks to Don Keyser]


  1. Jongseong Park said,

    May 5, 2022 @ 8:41 am

    We might note that today (5 May) marks the centennial celebration of Children's Day in Korea, which was another of Bang Jeong-hwan's initiatives.

    The word 어린이 eorini feels like such a basic part of the vocabulary. If we hadn't learned about Bang Jeong-hwan and Children's Day, then we would have assumed that the word has been around for much longer.

    I don't really remember seeing the neologisms in question, but we go through so many faddish coinages without much longevity that it often doesn't feel like it's worth keeping up. The whole issue may be moot in a couple of years when people will have moved on to newer internet slang.

  2. Ulf said,

    May 5, 2022 @ 10:46 am

    But…children ARE “imperfect and immature beings.” No?

  3. Philip Taylor said,

    May 5, 2022 @ 2:17 pm

    Thank you Ulf. I am glad that I am not the only reader to have thought that on reading the article. I also found myself wondering who on earth could come up with the idea that a particular word "did not sufficiently represent a child's personhood".

  4. Patrick said,

    May 5, 2022 @ 5:51 pm

    @Philip Taylor: According to Wiktionary, 애 has gone on to be used as a derogatory term for "person". Maybe they just don't want to use a word that sounds insulting.

  5. ZH said,

    May 5, 2022 @ 7:40 pm

    I would venture to say that there is no such thing as the "integrity of natural language", never has been, never will be. Even if there were, it's not clear to me what the negative consequences of "jeopardizing" it would be, or how you could objectively decide which uses are "natural" and which are "artificial".

    Language constantly changes, for an enormous number of complex and intertwining reasons. Words that cause harm often feel harmless to many who use them. Words that seem artificial and stilted to one generation appear natural and inevitable to the next.

    Whether use of the suffix -rini might have damaging effects on the self-esteem of children with long-term negative consequences for society I am in no position to judge, but it certainly seems worth considering–especially coming from The National Human Rights Commission.

  6. Jongseong Park said,

    May 5, 2022 @ 8:00 pm

    I dug a little deeper and discovered that the common notion that the word 어린이 eorini is a neologism coined by Bang Jeong-hwan a century ago is a myth.

    In reality, the word is attested from at least the 17th century according to the dictionary, which says it was spelled 어리니 eorini in the revised edition of the 경민편 언해 警民編諺解 Gyeongminpyeon Eonhae "Korean translation of the Gyeongminpyeon" published in 1658 (but keep on reading to see why it's slightly more complicated). The original Gyeongminpyeon "A Compendium to Warn the People", now lost, was a 1519 work in Hanmun (Classical Chinese).

    The actual quote appears in this article by Hong Yun-pyo about the adjectival verbs 어리다 eorida (stem 어리- eori-) and 어리석다 eoriseokda (stem 어리석- eoriseok-). Today, eorida means "to be young" and eoriseokda means "to be foolish", but in the 15th century eorida only meant "to be foolish". It started being used in the meaning "to be young" in the late 16th century, and by the 17th century eorini was being used in opposition to "adult".

    This is the relevant passage from the 1658 revised edition of the Gyeongminpyeon Eonhae as quoted in the article and on Wikisource:
    얼운은 어린이ᄅᆞᆯ 어엿비 너기디 아니ᄒᆞ며
    Eoreun-eun eorini-rål eoyeotbi neogidi anihåmyeo (South Korean romanization plus å for archaic vowel ㆍ)
    Elw.un.un elin.ilol eyespi nekiti anihomye (Yale romanization)

    In today's Korean it would be:
    어른은 어린이를 어여삐 여기지 아니하며
    Eoreun-eun eorini-reul eoyeoppi yeogiji anihamyeo
    Elun.un elin.ilul eyeppi yekici anihamye

    It looks as if it means "the adult does not consider the child pretty", except that 어여삐 eoyeoppi is another word that went through a semantic shift. Today it means "prettily", but originally meant "pitifully". So this passage actually meant "the adult does not pity the child", and today we would use 불쌍히 bulssanghi instead of eoyeoppi.

    So already in 1658, the word was being used to mean "child", in today's spelling 어린이 as opposed to the supposed older spelling 어리니 that appears in the dictionary.

    Hong quotes a further two examples of 어린이 from the 18th century, again in today's spelling. He does say that 어리니 came to take on the meaning of "child" after the 15th and 16th centuries, but does not actually quote an example attesting that spelling. Maybe it is a hypothetical form imitating the common spelling practice of the period which ignored morphological divisions, but I'm not sure why he or the dictionary went with this spelling to show the earlier form.

    In any case, the conclusion is that Bang Jeong-hwan didn't coin a new word, but popularized an existing one that didn't have the pejorative connotations of such words as 애놈 aenom or 애녀석 aenyeoseok that were commonly used at the time to refer to children. So it seems like some details were lost in the popular retelling in the origin story of the holiday, which isn't particularly surprising.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    May 5, 2022 @ 9:50 pm


    "Language constantly changes…".

    You can say that again! It is a truism. Everyone at Language Log is keenly aware of that. The rest of your remarks are simplistic and obvious or self-contradictory.

  8. Philip Anderson said,

    May 6, 2022 @ 7:16 am

    While children are certainly immature, and will mature into adults, they are no more imperfect than adults. Some adults also remain immature of course

  9. wanda said,

    May 6, 2022 @ 10:07 am

    "While children are certainly immature, and will mature into adults, they are no more imperfect than adults." It depends on whether you think perfection is something you are or something you achieve. If perfection is something you work towards, then of course adults are able to be farther along in that journey than children.

  10. Scott Mauldin said,

    May 8, 2022 @ 2:19 pm

    Am I missing something or is this just an example of the euphemism treadmill in action? In a few years eorini will be considered terribly offensive and a new term will appear to escape the connotations of eorini, until it too becomes offensive a few years later, lather rinse repeat.

  11. Jongseong Park said,

    May 8, 2022 @ 9:44 pm

    I highly doubt that the term 어린이 eorini itself will develop negative connotations in the foreseeable future. For the euphemism treadmill to grind its course, the concept referred to must be something that is considered objectionable or distasteful to refer to directly. Since the development of the modern concept of childhood in the late 19th century which reached Korea in the early 20th century, it is difficult to argue that there is any automatic attachment of contempt when referring to children.

    I found a news article which provides some background on this issue. It seems that the controversy started when the Seoul Foundation for Arts and Culture, which is under the Seoul municipal government, initiated an online campaign called ○린이 날·☆린이 날·△린이 날, which was a play on 어린이날 Eorini nal "Children's Day" with the first syllable 어 eo replaced by different symbols. It said that anyone who embarked on a new challenge was a child (eorini), and invited people to post pictures on social media of themselves trying out a new hobby. One twitter user complained that a public institution was using slang that played on negative stereotypes about children, sparking the debate.

    This invited backlash of course from many people who did not see this usage as pejorative. The YouTube channel of a large bookstore chain in Korea conducted a survey on attitudes toward this use of -rini to describe novices, and 42.8% were neutral, 31% were negative, and 26.2% were positive.

    This wasn't the first time a complaint against this slang usage was raised. Last October, prior to Hangul Day, the Seoul-based NGO International Children's Center for Human Rights put up a post questioning whether the term -rini reflected the notion that children are immature and imperfect, and encouraged the use of non-slang terms to describe novices. As background, Hangul Day is the national holiday celebrating the Korean alphabet, but is often seen as a chance to talk about the Korean language itself, especially in decrying slang usage.

    Part of the negative attitude towards -rini is the perception among some that it took off due to the highly problematic slang term 로린이 rorini, which takes the first syllable of 로리타 Rorita which is an older, Japanese-influenced transcription of Lolita, which is today spelled 롤리타 Rollita. It is a term sexually objectifying children. The use of -rini to signal novices would seem to be semantically unrelated, but you can see why some people would be negatively disposed to it anyway. So it's not surprising that the National Human Rights Commission, while dismissing the petition itself, nevertheless urged public institutions to refrain from using this expression in order to avoid such controversy.

    I hope this elucidates some of the background on an issue that would probably puzzle most outsiders.

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