"When faced with a problem you do not understand,
do any part of it you do understand; then look at it again."
~(Robert A. Heinlein - "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress")

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Monday, January 23, 2012


n. Slang. 1. A dirty, sludgy, or slimy substance. 2. An Oriental.  An offensive term used derogatorily, [Perhaps from Scottish gowk, simpleton, from Middle English gowke, cuckoo, from Old Norse gaukr, from Common Germanic gaukaz (unattested).]  ~ New College Edition - The American Heritage Dictionary of The English Language (1981)

I came across that while looking up something else in my dictionary.

Lord!  What follows "Perhaps" sounds a bit like Pintel (the one with the wooden eye) and Ragetti (the dour one) in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006) having this Monty Python discussion over the origin and pronunciation of the word "Kraken"

The 1981 date of that dictionary attests to how thrifty I am (you're thinking of another word; aren't you? :-), but I've always liked it and found it to be pretty good.

BUT, with all due respect to the gents who wrote that definition above -- Unh-unh!

The term comes from this Korean word ...

"Gook" is its pronunciation, and it means "country"

At first glance, Korean appears similar to Chinese and Japanese characters, but in fact, it consists of an alphabet invented around 600 years ago by a team of scholars dealing with the fact that many Korean words were so difficult to be rendered into the Chinese characters in use at that time, that only the wealthy and privileged could find the time to learn how.

Result: Way too much of the population was illiterate. So, those scholars devised an alphabet of 24 consonants and vowels (clustered in syllables) called "Hangul", designed so that even a commoner could learn to read and write. "A wise man can acquaint himself with them before the morning is over; a stupid man can learn them in the space of ten days." (from Wikipedia)

From thinkzone.wlonk.com

25 Sep 2012 - Potential confusion I should have addressed long ago ...

Before the chart above, I mention "an alphabet of 24 consonants and vowels".
Some of you may have counted 40 Korean letters in that chart. So, what gives?

Here's the deal. There are 14 basic consonants, in the first row of Korean letters, immediately below the word "Consonants", and 10 pure vowels in the 3rd row, immediately below the word "Vowels", making a total of 24.

BUT, five of the consonants can be doubled (2nd row) to make a harder, sharper sound, bringing us up to 29 letters. PLUS, there are 11 compound vowels (4th row) made by assembling two pure vowels together to represent a sound that is a blend of the two. Now we're at 40.  Crystal? :-)

From thinkzone.wlonk.com

Notice at the end of the definition of "America" above, that Romanization "Mi guk" follows a phrase that translates into "beautiful country". That it is  pronounced "me gook" is almost certainly the source of the term that is the title for this post, coming from Koreans simply using their name for our country.

Now, we're not really that dense (I hope :-);  I've no doubt that our soldiers very quickly learned what those Koreans were really saying, but by the time they did the damage was done and the term stuck.

When I was first introduced to the language, at Yale's Institute of Far Eastern Languages (courtesy of the USAF), the Romanization (rendering those sounds into our Roman alphabet) was Yale's version.  The form used above is the Revised Romanization system, developed in the late '90s, eliminating a lot of diacritical and accent marks to make things easier.

The alphabet is very phonetic and quite consistent.  A Korean speaker encountering a new word in that alphabet has no problem figuring out how to pronounce it, and going the other way, can usually spell it correctly if he hears it pronounced properly.

At the time I learned this (50 years ago), I marveled at the Korean's ingenuity at coming up with and maintaining such a system, and never even considered the flaw in my reasoning.

The consistency I worshiped then was (and had to be) the product of a very insular society.

Our English (especially American English) gets enriched from every other language on the planet (literally hundreds), many of whom use the same Roman alphabet we do but in their own wonderful and mysterious ways, giving us this anarchy in which a word is often impossible to know how to pronounce without seeing it in context.

Yes, a system that can conjure up something like "ough" to be part of our words may truly rate an "Oh My God!!!"

But, consistency is highly overrated. Probably terrific for robots and ants. I'd like to think that we are a bit more flexible than that.

Considering the enrichment of our language (and so much else) by those contributions from others, I wouldn't have it any other way.


Foxfier said...

I wonder if there's a shift in how things are spelled as how they're said shifts?

I suppose it's possible that there hasn't been a shift... I can't see it, but I am coming from the culture that gets "Peter" from "Kefas"!

Paul Gordon said...

GW left this comment on the previos post ("God D*MM*T, Ann!!! ...")

I'm pretty sure he mean't it for here.

As I don't seem to have the ability to simply move it, I've copied it below.

GW said...
Actually, the man responsible for creating the Korean alphabet and its rules for pronunciation was King Sejong the Great - a fascinating man.

As a person who learned Korean during 5 years in Korea, I can speak to the fact that it is much easier than learning most other foreign languages.

Historical Korean society was very insular - it earned the name the hermit kingdom for a reason. That said, it, like every other language, is malleable and open to foreign influence. For most of their history, that was China and, in part, Japan. The language is being heavily influenced now by English and English words are creeping in all over.

By the way, while I was over in Korea, I was a me-gook goon.

Foxfier said...

On the imported language coolness thing, Japan is even getting French words! (We've caught two in our viewing of Naruto; coup d'état and...argh, something else.)

Donald said...

I'm curious about your blog and blogging in general. Looking at the titles in your archives and the list of categories, you appear to write about whatever whim strikes you. Was this intentional from the start? or did you start with a specific aim in mind and just evolved this way?

Paul Gordon said...


I started this blog in October of 2009.

At that time, my "aim" was political; for years I had left comments on other blogs, some of them almost of essay length.

A blogger suggested that one of them was worthy of it's own posting and that I should do exactly that.

Being always a bit full of myself, eventually (Oct 2009) I did.

But, there were other things I loved to write about as well, especially movies, so I decided NOT to limit the content of my blog.

While I DO keep a list of posts "To Do" (or more accurately "maybe I'd like to eventually do"), I'd say most of my posts are reactions to something I've come across.

Take that definition at the top of this post, about the possible ("Perhaps") origins of "gook":

I mean, Scottish? Old Norse?!!!

Jesus Wept! (or more likely doubled over laughing at that).

No way I could let that stand unchallenged, even if what I read was over 30 years old. I simply had to write this post.

I strongly suspect that most bloggers operate this way.

Serendipity is a major part of our work. :-)

January 24, 2012 6:29 PM

Anonymous said...

I'm pretty new at this place and adore the design, could you let me know me where you bought this theme? You can contact me on my e-mail…looking forward to hear from you

Paul Gordon said...

To Anon:

Contacting you by email would be easier had you left an email address. :-)

I didn't buy the theme; I used one of a number of templates available on blogger.com, and filled it in the way I wished, using my own pictures.

Almost any web blogging site (wordpress for example) will have similar choices available.

Good luck.


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