Monday, June 30, 2014

Sweet, Delicious Eff You

Dear Korean,

Reading this article, I was wondering whether the statement "The popular pumpkin toffees have become a shorthand for an insult in South Korea, where 'Go eat toffee' means a ruder version of 'get lost'" is true. Is there even a "tradition" to throw toffee? In my culture we throw sweets and candies as a sign of good luck and happiness.

Curious Reader

A bit of background first. As this blog (unfortunately) predicted, Korean national soccer team returned from the Brazil World Cup with a disappointing result of two losses and one draw.

Upon their return, they were greeted with a toffee shower:

Note the toffees on the floor.

So yes, it's true: throwing toffee is an insult. But why? That question becomes fairly easy to understand when one sees what a traditional Korean toffee looks like. It looks like this:

Sweet and delicious.
This is called 엿 [yeot] in Korean. "Toffee" is a solid translation, because that's what yeot is--it is a candy created by solidifying thin strands of syrup. The insult is to say 엿 먹어라, or "eat yeot." Hm, put this long, sticky thing into your mouth? Wonder what that could possibly mean?

(For those lacking in imagination, it means: "Eat a dick.")

Interestingly, this insult is more often delivered with words rather than with the actual candy. In the right context, gifting the candy is not an insult at all. For example, someone who is preparing for an exam often receives yeot as a gift, as an encouragement to "stick" the exam (=pass the exam.) But of course, there is no mistaking the intent behind the toffee shower that the the national team received.

Several of you also emailed to ask how the Korean felt about the way in which the players were received. His feeling is: they probably don't deserve it, but it is part of the job description. Certain players--Son Heung-min comes to mind--played their hearts out, and definitely did not deserve to be told to "fuck off." Ideally, one should be able to focus-fire the insult. If one threw the yeot only to those who deserved the most blame, striker Park Chu-young and goalie Jung Sung-ryong would be getting a cannonball of candies to their faces. 

(And Jung won't be able to catch a single one of them. Hey-oh!) 

But that's what sports stars are. They are not paid big money to put a ball through a goal or a hoop or into the end zone. They are paid to serve as the vessel into which we project our desire. In this instance, Korean people's desire was hardly unreasonable; it is not as if there was an expectation that the team would win the whole thing. The team was expected to play hard, and play competently. More than a few players on the team failed at this. And if all they receive in return is some candies thrown at their face, that is not a huge injustice.

-UPDATE: July 3, 2014-

1.  Renowned food blogger Joe McPherson, who blogs at Zenkimchi, lodged this objection:  "Yeot is more like a taffy than toffee." Truth be told, TK did not even realize there was a difference between taffy and toffee. Alrighty then.

2.  This post was featured on Deadspin, in which some of Deadspin's commenters questioned why the yeot showing in the photos taken at the airport does not look like the yeot photo in this post. The reason is actually pretty simple: in the era of commercialization, the traditional long yeot has been re-packaged into a bite-sized candy. The bite-size yeot is still quite enough to convey the insulting message, and has the bonus of being a better aerial projectile.

3.  Now, for the really fun part. Since this post went up, a number of Korean readers provided several alternate theories as to why "eat yeot" is an insult. The theory that TK presented in the post is the prevailing theory: that yeot looks like penis, and "eat yeot" means "eat a dick." But the alternate theories are plenty interesting in their own right, so here they are:

- Probably the most colorful theory is that "eat yeot" comes from a botched exam in 1969. In the middle school entrance exam of 1969 (yes, Korea used to have an entrance exam for middle schools,) there was a question about the appropriate coagulating agent in the yeot-making process. Because of a mistake, there were two possible answers, but the testing authorities only recognized one of the answers. The enraged parents of the students then mobbed the testing authorities, shoving a homemade yeot made with the alternate substance into the faces of the befuddled testing authorities, screaming: "Eat this yeot! Eat it!"

This event actually did happen, but it is almost certainly not the origin of the phrase "eat yeot" because there are examples of "eat yeot" usage that pre-dates 1969. But it's a fun story.

- One alternate theory says:  "eat yeot" means "shut up," because apparently there is a Western tradition in which the dead's mouth was filled with thick syrup to keep it closed. This is most likely a wild speculation.

- Another alternate theory says:  "eat yeot" is a bastardization of "eat yeom" [염 먹어라]. "Yeom" is a process by which Koreans prepare the dead body for the funeral. That is to say--the theory is that "eat yeot" really means "go die." TK does not think this is particularly compelling, because yeom is a process rather than a substance that actually goes into one's mouth.

- There is even a dispute as to whether "yeot" refers to a man's genitalia. One of the leading theories is that "eat yeot" is a slang term originating from Namsadangpae [남사당패], a famed circus/clown act in Korea that has survived for centuries. According to the Namsadangpae lingo, yeot actually refers to vagina rather than penis.

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


  1. In an event where middle of the pack teams played the giants like equals, the Korean team was the worst I had the displeasure of watching. There may be some bias here since I'm Korean-American, but there's no excuse for this embarrassment. The last match against Belgium exemplified the Korean efforts perfectly. It took 11 Koreans to balance the match against 10! And if I'm not mistaken, Belgium was resting some of the starters.

    There was more space, so Korea was able to get close to the Belgian box. But once there, they did not know what to do! Are these really professional soccer players out there? I was under the impression Korea sent amateurs.

    I understand there were really no big expectations, but what I saw was horrendous. I will repeat: Korea was the worst team in the 2014 World Cup.

  2. I also heard that the 엿 insult derives from the dryness and stickiness of the candy, which, um, might resemble the, er, dryness of an old woman's private parts. An American who had lived in Korea for 10+ years and was married to a Korean and who spoke good Korean said it sorta translates as: "Go f*** your slutty whore mother's c**t." TK: is he full of s**t?

    1. Once I put this up, I received a whole lot of alternative theories for why 엿 was an insult. I am planning to write an update later today.

  3. There's another story, FYI. 엿먹어라 Eat toffees, came from funerals. 염 Yeom is a Korean traditional way of cleansing and shrouding a dead body before funeral. This action is called 염하다 Yeom-hada or 염먹이다 Yeom-meogida. Therefore 염먹어라 Yeom-meogeora is a sort of insulting/swearing/cursing phrase, which can be translated as "Go out and kill yourself" in English, which is very insulting. That phrase "염먹어라" is slightly modified to "엿먹어라". Both pronunciations are very similar to each other.

  4. Here's how the Japan team was treated (also two losses, a draw, and a disappointing early exit):

    I wish the Korean team got the same sort of welcome that the Japan (and many other early exit country) team did.

    1. I agree
      Also these guys look so clueless in the pic, they deserve a hug

  5. What? Are these people kindergarteners? Throwing candy at a losing team (or anyone else) is never appropriate. It says more about the "fan" than it does the athletes. Also, I can't stand littering or wasting food. The people who threw the 엿 should've been forced to pick it up...and then eat it.


    Apparently it was just one frank fan-atic. And you can see the yeot was thrown at the feet
    of the players, not at them. The sign is funny. "Korean soccer has died". Truly.

    Oh well, off to soothe my pain with a couple of SNSD, Apink videos. Kpop, the gift that keeps on giving.

  7. The person who did that should have waited for the semifinal Brazil game
    He would run out of yeot

  8. Yeot is sticky and long. I'd translate 엿 먹어 as "Eat sh*t and die," which was reinforced by the signage at the airport to the effect that "Korean soccer is dead" ... Just throwing that out there...

  9. Eat yeot is an expression to ask someone to shut their mouth. Yeot is very sticky when you eat it and it is good manners to shut your mouth when you're chewing it and it will take some time before you can completely get it down your throat. Hence, the expression, eat yeot, which is meant for someone to shut their trap. =D


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