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Consult This Korean Dictionary with Care


NTC's Dictionary of Korea's Business and Cultural Code Words

By Boye Lafayette De Mente

NTC Publishing Group, Lincolnwood (Chicago), Illinois; 1998

ISBN #0-8442-8362-2


Review by Jerry Winzig


Boye Lafayette De Mente's Dictionary of Korea's Business and Cultural Code Words is not a conventional dictionary.  In fact, many of his definitions use a Korean word or phrase as an excuse to talk about cultural concepts and ideas.  Many of the definitions are interesting and helpful, but some leave the reader wondering about De Mente's background.  There are indications that his definitions are tinged with an outsider's point of view and even cultural and racial bias.


It's enough to make the reader more than a little suspicious about De Mente's qualifications to write about the Korean language.  However, there is no biographical description of the author, no indication as to whether he's lived or worked in Korea.  This reader found just a single clue, in the definition for "chol" (bow), when De Mente starts one paragraph with these words: "As someone who has been bowing for more than fifty years..."


De Mente's comments about Korean women are strange, and even a little disturbing.  When defining "achom" (flattery or compliments), he says, "Korean men are especially pleased when foreign men compliment them on the beauty and desirability of Korean women.  His definition of "aeyok" (eroticism) includes this claim: "By the 1960s it was common to hear from international businessmen and travelers that the sensual attributes of Korean women were one of the best-kept secrets of Asia.


When defining "taejop" (entertainment), he asserts that "Koreans, like other Asians in particular, learned long ago that the company of beautiful women--combined with liquor--has a remarkably mellowing effect on men and will do more than virtually any other experience to bond males and encourage business relationships in a matter of hours."  In his description of "kisaeng" (loosely, female artists or, as he says, "pleasure girls"), he says that some kisaeng "were so gorgeous that newly arrived foreign men who were not yet used to how beautiful Korean women can be found themselves stunned."


De Mente also seems to have an odd view of Christianity in Korea, even though South Korea is 40 percent Christian.  In his definition of "Shin" (God), he says, "Probably the most important thing that Christianized Westerners should keep in mind about Korean attitudes and behaviors is that generally their morality--their sense of 'sin'--is not based on any theologically oriented philosophy of right and wrong but on practical matters in the here and now."  When describing the Korean word for Christianity ("Kiddokyo"), he says, "The surface manifestations of Buddhism and Christianity in Korea make them ore visible to the eye, but just beneath this surface layer one invariably finds a bedrock of Confucianism and shamanism in the Korean psyche."


Not all of De Mente's definitions are suspect, however.  His definitions of "chuso" (addresses) and "taekshi" (taxis) ring true for anyone who has taken a cab in Seoul or tried to find a family residence in one of Seoul's hilly neighborhoods.  He says that finding out-of-the-way places can be "a hit-or-miss experience because few streets are named and the address system has nothing to do with the streets that the buildings or houses are on."


All in all, travelers to Korea may find parts of this "dictionary" helpful.  It can provide them with some important insights into Korean culture.  However, it should not be their only source of information and they would be wise to distrust statements that sound racist.  They should also be careful about taking De Mente's definitions too literally.  Even when they seem accurate, they are often describing past cultural outlooks that are rapidly changing in modern Korea.  Travelers should be careful before acting on the basis of these definitions.



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