Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Mexican Asks the Korean (Again)

All rise for today's honorable guest, the grandaddy of all "Ask" blogs:

Dear Korean,

Why is the word "rang" in so many Korean names for things? Sarang Community Church, Hwa Rang Do, Arirang Market--what's "rang"?

The Mexican

Dear Wab,

Very nice of you to visit this humble site, inspired directly by your greatness.

Actually, this is what Ask a Korean! is missing
compared to !Ask a Mexican! -- an awesome logo.

But as to your question, the Korean is afraid that his answer is a bit of a letdown -- the "rang"s that you identified are basically false cognates. They don't really have any meaning on their own, and even if they do, they have nothing to do with one another.

To be more specific, sarang is purely Korean word meaning "love," and it is not the case that sa means one thing and rang means another, like "lo" and "ve" in "love" do not have any independent meaning.

Hwarang-do is slightly different, because it is a Sino-Korean word. Sino-Korean words are basically Korean words derived out of Chinese, a lot like the way many English words are derived out of Latin. (More explanation about Sino-Korean words can be found here.) So in fact, hwa, rang and do in Hwarang-do actually mean something individually. Put differently, Hwarang-do is written in Chinese characters like this: 花郞道. Each Chinese character -- 花, 郞 and 道 mean something.

But this is not to say that the meaning of the composite word exactly equals the sum of the meaning of its parts. 花 ("hwa") means "flower," 郞 ("rang") means "young men" and 道 ("do") means "way." So the composite meaning is... "the way of the flower men"? (What the hell?) Actually, the actual meaning of 화랑 (= "flower men") is a group of young men in late 6th century in Korea, who were known for their mental discipline and a certain strain of martial arts (among other things.) So Hwarang-do is actually the martial art practiced by the Hwarangs.

(Quick side note: if you were thinking the term "flower men" sounds rather, um, alternative, you are not too far off -- there are some number of Korean historians who claim that Hwarang group is the first sign of homosexuality in Korean history.)

One thing to note is that rang here does not stand alone in the normal parlance. This is easy understand when compared to Latin-based English. For example, the word "circumspect" is Latin-based -- "around" ("circum") - looking ("spect"), i.e. "careful to consider all circumstances." But English-speakers use the part "spect" alone just to mean "looking." (Anglophones would say "Look at this," not "Spect at this.")

The last example -- arirang -- is actually very, very tricky. Arirang is a refrain in many of Korea's traditional folk songs. In fact, many of those songs are simply titled Arirang, and each region of Korea has a different kind of arirang. (Also, interestingly, the biggest propaganda show in North Korea is called Arirang Festival as well.) Arirang is a pure Korean word, so rang itself PROBABLY does not mean anything. But the reason why the Korean had to emphasize the word "probably" was -- no one knows for sure what arirang is supposed to mean. The speculations have gone all the way from a proper name of a valley to pain associated with childbirth. And those speculation tend to hyper-analyze each syllable in arirang, trying to extract any possible meaning that makes sense. In this context, some scholars contend that rang has an indepedent meaning, while other scholars disagree.

One more occasion you might hear rang in Korean is when it is used as a classificational particle indicating companionship. (More about classificational particles here.) For example, a sentence that says: 나는 영호랑 식사를 했다 [na-neun Young'ho-rang siksa-reul het-da] means "I dined with Young'ho." The rang in that sentence is attached to the person's name ("Young-Ho", a Korean boy's name that transliterates rather unfortunately) to signify companionship with the person. In other words, rang in that sentence means "with", but note that particles only carry a meaning when attached to a noun. (This is more fully explained in the link above.)

-EDIT 11/22/2010- The Internet, as the endless echo chamber, brings back the Mexican's coverage of the Korean's coverage of the Mexican's question, which was prompted by the Mexican's comments on the Korean's coverage on CNN. That's a lot of covering.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. Very interestinf and informative presentation, Korean! Thank you for this. I run into the term "hwarang" in Queen Seonduk series (which, by the way, I loved). I admired the hwarang's spirit. The explanation of those historians about homosexuality doesn't seem so true to me. They even say that Greeks warriors in antiquity represented this orientation. It is more appealing that the hwarangs represented "the flower of the youth" , as we have an expression in Romanian, which is a Latin language, which means "the best of all".

  2. While The Mexican is here, I should ask what os means. ;)

    Seriously, I think one of the problems going on here is the annoying way in which many people Romanize Korean by dividing each syllable with a space and/or (if it's a proper noun) capitalizing each syllable. We don't do this with Japanese and certainly not with English...

    To Kyo

    O Sa Ka

    BenJaMin JohnSon

    Naturally with something like Hwa Rang Do, rang will really stick out, hence the misinterpretation of the syllable.

  3. Great post as always. Btw, do you mind giving some references for the idea that the Hwarang might've been homosexual? I've not heard this before (though that's not surprising 'cause my Korean's quite crap). I live in Gyeongju and run a local tourism and history blog: . If I infer that the likes of General Kim Yu Shin and Venerable Won Hyo batted for the other team in their youth, I might get strung up by the locals without academic references to back me up.


    Sherwin ;-)

  4. Rather like 'flower of chivalry', isn't it?

    And, yes, the Hwarang-do would scarcely be alone in the ancient world in combining Ares and Eros. Mary Renault imagined the Spartans at Thermopylae were found lying side by side, each partner with each.


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