The battle of the colors

It started off as a quiet, pleasant evening, just a few of us sitting around a table in one of our local pubs, chatting over beer about our upcoming summer vacations. The consensus was that nobody wanted to spend a week stuck in traffic on some expressway, so we all decided we'd just stay in Seoul and spend the week getting together for some more beer.

Just as we were about to order our second round, in walked a casual acquaintance of ours, a type-A personality we call Andy the Absolutist, with one of his coworkers, Suncheol the Superior, in tow.

"Mind if we join you?" asked Andy rhetorically as he pulled up a couple of chairs and the two of them sat down.

"Please, have a seat," I answered equally rhetorically, since they were already ensconced and motioning to the waiter to bring two more cold drafts.

We knew from experience that whenever these two met it was hard to get a word in endwise, much less edgewise, but at least before this time the conversation had always remained civilized.

"Boy, talk about your xenophobia and nationalism taken to extremes," Andy said, slurping the head off his beer.

"What do you mean?" slurped Suncheol.

Surely you heard about the kid who was beaten to death in a subway station for speaking English," Andy explained.

"Oh, that. Yeah, it's terrible the way people resort to violence to express their opinions these days. They should have just chided the fellow—you know, told him that as a Korean he should be speaking Korean instead of getting his tongue all curled up with English."

"Hey, wait a second. What's wrong with speaking English? You're speaking English right now." Andy sounded a little testy.

"That's just because your Korean's so lousy. Whenever possible, I always prefer speaking Korean. It just sounds better. It's, dare I say, superior." Shuncheol chugged the rest of his beer and waved for another one.

"Superior?" Andy's voice was getting louder. He downed the rest of his beer, too, and held up his mug for more."What's superior about it?"

"Well, for one thing, it's a richer language. We have a richer vocabulary for talking about many things." Suncheol spoke with calm self-assurance.

"Oh, yeah? Like what, for instance?" Andy was squinting at Suncheol and the glint of daggers emerged from his eyes.

"Like colors. Take the color red, for example. In English you have to get along with red and reddish while we have an abundance of words like 붉다, 빨갛다, 벌겋다, 불그스름하다 . . ." Suncheol was counting on his fingers as he spoke.

"Yeah? Well, we've got scarlet, crimson, vermilion . . ." Andy inserted.

But Suncheol went on as if he hadn't been interrupted. "And then there's the color of the chili peppers when they're just ripening from green to red; we call that 불그죽죽하다. Then there's 불그레하다 and 불그뎅뎅하다. Do you have names for those colors?" Suncheol challenged.

Andy seemed at a loss to match those specific colors, so he retorted with "Come off it. You guys can't even tell the difference between blue and green!"

Suncheol tilted his head to one side. "It's true that the general term 푸르다 does cover both those colors, but then we can always distinguish them by using 남색 or 녹색. In English you don't enjoy the convenience of the general term."

Andy looked flustered. You could see his mind racing through its index of colors for a comeback. "Oh, yes we do," he said a bit shakily. "There's lavender."

"Lavender?" said a whole chorus of voices in unison.

Andy looked around at our quizzical eyes staring at him in disbelief. He sounded defensive. "You know, like in the song: Lavender's blue, dilly dilly, lavender's green."

It was painfully obvious that Andy wasn't going to be able to handle this alone. An Australian voice at the other end of the table suggested, "Try turquoise, Andy. Turquoise can be blue or green."

Soon most of the English speakers were feeding Andy colors to use as ammunition. The other Korean customers in the place piped in with support for Suncheol. I chose to remain aloof and just watch. The landlord and the waiter stood with mouths agape, watching the words flying back and forth across the room.

In the ensuing melee, I thought I heard someone say, "You'll be charcoal and indigo all over when I'm through with you!" I just barely missed being hit by a "부옇다" and a loud "거먕빛" as they zinged by my head. The waiter had to duck to keep from being knocked out cold by "heliotrope," and a stentorphonic "fuchsia" hit the landlord square in the face, leaving him with a purplish bruise on his nose. Finally, the place fell silent as everybody suddenly ran out of colors.

Andy fell back in his chair, sweat pouring from beneath his dishwater-blond hair. I noted that, from exhaustion, Suncheol's complexion had turned a color no one had thought to use; I raised my hand sheepishly and offered "누리끼리하다?"

"Traitor!" shouted the English speakers, descending on me en masse.

After the Korean customers pulled them off me, we managed to get Andy and Suncheol to sign a truce stating that all languages were created equal. But Lord knows how long the armistice will last.

An earlier version of this article first appeared in the Korea Times on 8 August 1991.


To avoid breaking up the flow of the conversation in this piece, I did not include romanizations of the Korean words. For the curious among readers who cannot read Korean, here they are together with brief meanings.

붉다 bukda
the most general term for red
빨갛다 ppalgata
bright red
벌겋다 beolgeota
slightly red
불그스름하다 bulgeuseureumhada
불그죽죽하다 bulgeujukjukhada
unevenly red, with spotty inmixing of other colors
불그레하다 bulgeurehada
a pretty hue of red
불그뎅뎅하다 bulgeudengdenghada
annoyingly or inappropriately red
푸르다 pureuda
the most general term for greens and blues, especially those found in nature, such as the blue of the sky or the green of the grass
남색 namsaek
녹색 noksaek
부옇다 buyeota
misty grayish white, like a fog
거먕빛 geomyangbit
a very dark, blackish red
누리끼리하다 nurikkirihada