folk metaphor

Folk Metaphor-Korean

“?? ??~” or “????”

“gui-shin ga-chi~” “gui-shin-ee-yah”

“ghost like~” “ghost is”

“~like a ghost” “Is a ghost”

Gisuk has always heard this being said in Korea. It is a very common phrase used when someone is uncannily good at something. I was teaching her some dance technique, and noticed out of the corner of my eye that she was not turning her foot out properly. “Turn out!” I said, and she said “?? ?? ?? ??…!” Which is literally, “You know, like a ghost!” Basically, what she meant was “You can tell so well, like a ghost!”

I have always heard this myself, but when she said this I noticed for the first time how odd it is that we would equate being very good or very skilled at something to being a ghost. That is when I decided this was a valuable piece of Korean folklore.

When I asked her what she thought this meant, she said simply that she thinks we compare a very skilled person to a ghost because it can be mysterious when someone is unusually good at something.

However, most cultures would not associate anything good to a ghost. Yet in Korean, when we say “good like a ghost,” it is generally a compliment and does not even necessarily connote mysteriousness or eeriness of a person’s talent. People might say enthusiastically of a good singer “at singing, she’s a ghost!” of a math prodigy, they might say “he’s a math ghost”—without the slightest hint of negativity or uneasiness. I do not think the term ghost here is at all associated with the scary unknown. I would compare this to the American use of the word ‘wizard’ in the phrases “math wizard” or “computer wizard.” In this context, it ‘wizard’ simply means someone very skilled, with a trace of apprehension of sorcery. It is also an uncommon idea that ghosts are particularly skilled or talented. In western portrayals, anyway, ghosts are rather stiff and unable to think or do much.

I think this may be a vestigial of Korea’s historical shamanistic religions, and traditions of ancestor worship. Actually, many of our most important holidays still retain a great deal of ancestor worship. Because most of the ghosts that historical Koreans would have dealt with in their lives were those of ancestors, it is now no longer so surprising to me that Koreans still have an unusually positive view of ghosts. Historically, we worshiped them, and they were our guardians. No wonder, then, when we see someone who excels, we say “Why you’re like a ghost!” Putting it into historical context, we are basically saying “you are like an ancestor-god!”

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