미역국을 먹다 – Korean Idiom #17

3 Speed Only

With Explanation

There are many tests in the world, and we have to take them. After we take the tests, the results come out, sometimes we pass, in other times we fail.

미역국을 먹다 is the expression Koreans use to describe the failure in the tests. 미역 is seaweed and 국 is a stew. 먹다 means to eat. Then where did this meaning came from? It is said that there are 2 possibilities.

Seaweeds look so shiny and slippery. Koreans sometimes say failing a test as "시험에서 미끄러졌다," tripping from a test. So, not to be tripped in the test, we should run away from slippery things. As a result, Koreans say that "미역국을 먹다" as "failing a test."

Second reason came from a historical fact. In the late years of Joseon Dynasty, Japan was trying to break up the army. If soldiers in Joseon said something like that, they will be punished or killed. So, they called it "미역국을 먹다." Breaking up the army in Korean is 해산 and giving birth to a child is also called 해산 and Koreans eat 미역국 in their birthdays to celebrate their mothers. As 해산 in breaking up and 해산 in giving birth has the same pronunciation, so it was a kind of a code. As time goes on, it lost its original meaning, "breaking up,"
but it got a new meaning, "failing a test." I guess they failed to guard the nation, so it got this meaning.

Examples

시험을 잘 봤냐는 질문에 답이 없는 것을 보니 미역국 먹었나보다.
There was no answer to my question about the result of the test. I think he failed it.

처음부터 잘 하는 사람은 없어. 처음 몇 번은 미역국 먹을 각오로 임해야 해.
No one does great at their first try. You need to embrace yourself to fail first few tries.

시험 종료 3분 전에 실수를 발견해 고쳤다. 미역국 먹을 뻔했다.
I found the error 3 minutes before the end of the test. I almost failed the test.

Before I end my podcast, some of you listeners might have wondered it. Is 미역국 that bad to the test? It is a common misunderstanding in Korea. Seaweed is good for recovery and the health of your brain, so it is better to eat it before the test than not.