Book Review: Dictionary of Korean Idioms (한국어 관용어 사전)

I recently picked up a new book, Dictionary of Korean Idioms by 박규봉 and Michael Elliott (price: ₩28000).

Dictionary of Korean Idioms(한국어 관용어 사전)

The book contains 2013 Korean idioms, including both native Korean phrases like 우물 안 개구리 and 사자성어 (4 character proverbs) like 우이독경/牛耳讀經.  For each one, it includes a literal translation into English, a definition in both Korean and English, and an example in Korean, translated into English.  Some idioms have background notes which explain the origins or cultural aspect of the idiom.

Strengths: The layout is fairly nice, two-coloured (blue and black words).  For some idioms, it’s much easier to find them in this dictionary than in a regular dictionary (although not faster than online dictionaries like endic.naver.com or http://dic.daum.net/index.do?dic=eng).  The definitions are clear, and it’s nice to have the literal translation as well as a more meaningful translation.  The notes about origins are especially helpful.

Weaknesses:

Idioms are important, but it’s also important to know there usage.  That includes the frequency, register, connotations, etc.  These things are for the most part ignored in this dictionary.  It’d be really useful to know relative frequency.  Some English learner dictionaries now include some frequency information; for example, * for very uncommon words, ***** for very common words.  This is especially important for idioms, because the fact is, some idioms are extremely infrequent.  I did some informal research on idioms in English using a corpus (British National Corpus) and found that even more common idioms are pretty rare; the less common ones are extremely rare.  So if you use this dictionary to learn new idioms, it’d be really nice to have a good idea of which ones are more frequent.

Also, register is really important too.  Some idioms are mostly heard in spoken language, while others would seem extremely out of place if spoken; they’re normally found in written language.  Some idioms are very formal, while others are very informal.  Sometimes you can get a good idea of this; 사자성어 are far more common in written language, for example.  But not always.  So it’d be really helpful if they wrote register information explicitly.

Furthermore, all examples are in the form of a two line dialog.  That is, spoken language.  Since some of the idioms might be really out of place in spoken language, it means some examples can be quite stunted and unnatural.  In the case of more formal idioms, more formal examples would be much more suitable.

All in all a really helpful book.  I wrote a lot more about weaknesses, but that’s really just because I had to justify what I said a bit more; it’s certainly a book worth having, for any serious learner (low intermediate – advanced).

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