What does oppa mean?

What does oppa mean in KoreanIn Korean oppa (오빠) literally means “older brother of a female person”, but the meaning of oppa changed over time and now can refer to female person’s

  • older brother,
  • very close friend who is older (but not much older!),
  • romantic interest, boyfriend, and sometimes even husband, if they are older.

Addressing other people in Korean language is never simple. To truly understand the meaning of the word oppa and know when it is appropriate to use it, you must understand a bit about Korean culture.

For Koreans, it is really important to observe the relationship between the speaker and the subject of the sentence and the speaker and the audience. That’s just a fancy way to say you must be careful who you are speaking about and who is listening. That sounds paranoid, haha, but it’s actually all about showing respect to those with higher status than you.

And who has higher status?

Anyone in your family who is older than you, any stranger of equal or greater age, employer, customer, teacher, etc.

If a person holds superior status to you, whether by age, or function at a company or rank in the military, you should never use their name or say “you”. You need to use honorific titles, one of which is oppa.

Who can I call oppa?

Oppa emoji 오빠야

오빠야~ = Oppaaa
See more Korean emoji

You can say oppa ONLY to an older male. Older person is anyone who was born in the year prior to the year of your birth. So, even if he is a few months older, but born in the same year* as you, he is not oppa – meaning, while you are free to say what you want, you won’t be using that word properly.

If you are the same age you might call each other chingu (친구), if you are older you are nuna (누나) to him.

The upper limit on the age difference between you and oppa would be roughly 10 years. If someone is more than 10 years older than you then you would use a different title to refer to them. Also, it can be strange calling men over a certain age oppa. That age is not strictly defined, but probably somewhere over 30.

And most importantly, you have to be close to that person. Don’t say oppa in an official or businesses settings.

*Sometimes, some people use the Lunar calendar, or year of starting school if they are students, but this is rare and I’ve seen Koreans get confused over this too.

How to write oppa in Korean Hangul

To write 오빠 by hand, start at the top of the circle and move counter-clockwise. Follow the movements as shown in the animation below. Be sure to match the stroke order to make letters look more natural, the way native Koreans write them.

How to write oppa in Korean animated handwriting Hangul with stroke order

I suggest you learn how to write whole Korean alphabet Hangul, not just the word oppa. It will only take a few hours to learn the basics, and you will instantly know how to write much more than oppa. Most importantly, you will understand what you are writing, not just mindlessly copying lines.

If you want to type oppa on Korean keyboard press ㅇ ㅗ ㅃ ㅏ  one after the other (depending on the keyboard you use you may have to press SHIFT + ㅂ to get ㅃ.)

I wrote a lot about setting up Korean keyboard on different devices and showed Korean keyboard layout so if you have Android or iOS try this, I like MoAKey for Android as well, and also check out how to set up Korean keyboard on Windows 10.

How to pronounce oppa?

Using IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) the sounds would be represented as [op̕a]. If you are not familiar with IPA you can hear correct Korean pronunciation of oppa on Naver dictionary by pressing the speaker icon. The most important point you need to pay attention to in order to pronounce oppa correctly would probably be tensing your throat at the “pp” sound (note that you don’t say p twice, it’s just double to remind you of this tensing).

If you want to get your pronunciation just right check out the best Korean pronunciation textbook reviews.

Why do Korean guys like to be called oppa?

Even though calling a guy oppa can be no more exciting than calling an older woman ajumma, if said with the right tone of voice, it indicates that you like a guy as more than just a friend. And who doesn’t like being liked? It’s flirtatious, and flirting is usually exciting.

That being said, not all Korean guys like being called oppa. Some don’t care, some actively dislike it. If you are close enough to a guy to call him oppa, you are close enough to ask him if he likes it.

Do Korean guys dislike when non-Korean girls call them oppa?

Some Korean guys say ‘yes’ some say ‘no’. But I believe it’s not that simple. It all depends on the intent. First, realize that word itself doesn’t have any magical powers. The magic comes from the person using it.  If a foreign girl is going around squealing oppa at every guy she barely knows I can see how that can be a turnoff. But if you wait until you develop a more intimate relationship, and use it sincerely, I’m sure the guy would be pleasantly surprised.

I rarely use oppa with Kimchi Man. It just sounds unnatural to throw in a random Korean word when speaking English. But once I start speaking Korean with my boyfriend (and hopefully that will be before he becomes ajusshi) I would probably naturally switch to calling him oppa.

Does oppa mean boyfriend?

Oppa doesn’t mean boyfriend. A three-year-old girl can call her four-year-old brother oppa. Oppa meaning boyfriend would of course make that situation impossible.

Korean word for a boyfriend is 남자친구 (rom. nam-ja-chin-gu IPA namdzatsʰingu). 남자 means man and 친구 means friend so it’s similar to English, except it’s more adult-sounding “manfriend” rather than “boyfriend”.  However, oppa indeed is a word one can use to call and refer to their boyfriend, it just doesn’t mean boyfriend.

Can guys say oppa?

Not in public ;)

An equivalent to oppa for guys would be
• 형 (rom. hyeong; IPA [hyʌŋ]) male person referring to an older male person
• 누나 (rom. nu-na; IPA [nuna]) male person referring to an older female person

Since 형 is a very commonly used word it retained its older romanized form hyung even though its official romanization now is hyeong.

I have already been Kimchi Man’s girlfriend for a few weeks when I realized I don’t know his parents’ names! Feeling like a bad girlfriend, I asked him what their names were. Instead of an answer I just got a few grunts and then silence. Thinking he didn’t understand, which is not a rare occurrence considering neither of us is a native speaker of English, I asked again.

Silence.

After more prodding, I finally realized what the problem was. And it wasn’t until I explained that I would just like to have that as an information and promised never to say their name in front of them, that he finally told me their names.

And if that is not curious enough, I recently read an article stating that there used to be women in Korean villages who didn’t even know their own names! All their lives they had been called sister, daughter, Ms., mother, wife, and they never needed to use their names.

Even if you don’t speak Korean, if you have watched Korean dramas you are probably already familiar with some of these terms: hyung (hyeong), ajusshi (ajeossi), ajumma (ajuma), seonsaengnim, noona, sunbae (seonbae)… Everyone has their title.

Did you know that ajusshi and ajumma used to be terms reserved just for family, meaning aunt and uncle? Well, same thing happened with the definition of oppa: it used to be exclusively a family term meaning older brother, but its meaning expanded to mean an unrelated older male who you have somewhat close relationship with. What it hasn’t changed is implied respect and superiority of the person you are addressing, and that is something most non-Korean women using this term don’t understand.

(Note that orabeoni (오라버니) is an honorific form of oppa (오빠) and orabeonim (오라버님) an even higher honorific. One usually refers to one’s own brother as orabeoni and other people’s brother as orabeonim. I only ever heard these used in Korean historical dramas known as sageuks (사극))

It also implies that, while you in the position of showing respect and deference, even a level of trust, oppa is in the position where he should protect you and take care of you. This is also important to remember, as some women might be uncomfortable with this power-dynamic.

Still, human relationships are complex, and sometimes a word is just a word. It’s possible to agree to call someone oppa if you’re not female, if they’re not male, if you’re not younger and so on, but it’s good to know Korean culture and why Koreans say oppa in a certain situation. There is a culturally agreed upon meaning.

And how do you say oppa in English?

Sometimes things can’t be translated from one language to another, just explained. English does not have an equivalent word, and it certainly does not have Korean social structure that would give rise to such words.

And if you ever catch yourself thinking it’s strange to use the same word to refer to one’s older brother and boyfriend, just think how strange it is to use the same word for a newborn human and romantic partner. “Baby”.

And that’s all you need to know to give a correct translation of oppa.

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107 thoughts on “What does oppa mean?

  1. The link doesn’t work:(
    Can anyone give me a link that let’s me hear (I learn better when I can hear the word) how to pronounce the words Oppa, Jagiya, Jagi, and T.O.P from big bangs real name Choi Seunghyun? Thanks.

    • Really? I tried it now and it works fine for me. It’s supposed to take you to Naver’s Dictionary.

      Either way you can search for Naver’s or Daum’s Dictionary and they have audio files for what you’re looking for. Maybe not the personal names, though.

  2. What do you call an older male who you aren’t close to, but need to address respectively? Like just mentioning their name?

  3. Hello, I’m so confused right now.
    He asked me to go shopping together for some staff together and bought me snacks for study to get energy. And that day he said it’s a great day to date, which was first day going out together. And he treated me by sweet staff and ate together. Then I gave him some staffs also to give energy to study for him cuz it’s exam period. And recently I met him at night cuz he was woking night in the outside, that time he asked me about going trip after exam period. (anyway it’s after a week from going shopping) But we don’t really text each other just sometimes, once a day.. Are we in a relationship or just?? Advice me pls..

  4. this is interesting especially the “tone of voice part” because an oppa wanted me to call him “옵화” when we text. he cant hear me but i think he could imagine me saying that. haha thank you oegukeen!

  5. I have an online korean friend, we text each other frequently. One day we were talking about ages and we found out that he was 1 year older than me. He asked if I knew the meaning of 오빠, I said I knew and he said korean guys like the sound of oppa. When I asked why, he just said it was difficult to explain (since he doesnt know english that well).. Later he just simply said “I want you to call me oppa”. Is that a way of flirting?? I mean.. We talk to each other a lot but I have met him for just 1 week o_o… I wont define us as “close”

    • I think he just wants you to drop formalities so that you guys can act more like friends. I think it’s common for Koreans to ask each other for permission to speak at a different level of formality, or to ask to be talked to in a different level of formality. He probably feels comfortable with you now that he has gotten to know you, so he might or might not have been flirting, but you can’t know for sure with just that one statement.

  6. I’m a year older than my boyfriend, but I use Oppa and he thinks it’s adorable (he actually asked me to call him Oppa). But he’s been living in Canada as an international student for 4 years so maybe he’s more relaxed on the hierarchy system! Great blog, thank you!

  7. Interesting indeed. One thing for sure, not to use that word ‘oppa’ randomly.. When I was in Seoul, I was told several times by some nice Korean dudes not to call any man ‘oppa’ unless you are really close & know them very well. The reason was .. ‘Girls in night entertainment clubs use that ‘oppa’ to flirt around & it makes you sound cheesy though you meant well’.. For foreigners, it’s ok to address them by Mr, Miss, Sir & the likes.. I don’t know.. Maybe I’m wrong about that ‘oppa’ thing.. 😃😃

  8. thank you i was so curious about it…in korean movies they used the word “oppa” for both the one they loved and their brother…i wondered why..

  9. thanx for the article it really been helpful especially for such ones like me who are big fans of korean movies. i think am better able to follow the movies now.

  10. Thanks for the article – just realised how I might sound like a dick. I guess – it’s always important to be aware of the surroundings and culture before we say things.

  11. Pingback: Korean Dramas 1: Story Structure | Thinking Outside the Tube

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