[What should I call you?] Nobody wants to be called “Ajumma”.

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Honorary titles are tricky in many cultures, but can be particularly confusing in South Korea, where things like social status, age, work experience, and even social prejudice can be taken into account. This is the second part in a series about the many ways to address each other in Korean. – ed.

In 2019, Korea Yakult – the former name of food and beverage company Hy – announced that it was officially changing the title of its female sales assistants from “Yakult ajumma” to “Fresh Managers”. That same year, a company in charge of Metro Daegu’s cleanup announced that its female cleanup crew would be officially named “hwangyeongsa,” which translates to “environmental manager,” rather than “cheongso ajumma” or “cleaning ajumma.”

The two moves are just a few of many instances that show Koreans’ reluctance to use the word “Ajumma,” which was originally a casual term for a middle-aged woman among strangers but has carried derogatory implications over the years.

Ajumma, roughly equivalent to madam or ma’am, is an informal way of saying “Ajumeoni,” according to the National Institution of Korean Language, which has the same meaning with a more respectful implication.

“Calling someone Ajumma feels like you’re condescending to that person. I don’t use it myself on older women, instead calling them ‘imo (aunt’),” said 36-year-old Lee Bo-ra.

Women in Lee’s age group are in a very difficult place in terms of proper honors, as the label Ajumma implies that she no longer looks like an “Agassi”, a single young woman.

According to Statistics Korea, the average age at marriage for Korean women in 2020 was 31.1, and the age at which their first child was born was 32.3.

Even those who fit the dictionary definition of ajumma — married with children — would probably take offense at being called that.

“It doesn’t really matter whether you’re married and have kids. Being referred to as Ajumma means your life as Agassi is over and you’re in an area of ​​unattractive middle-aged women,” said Min Yu-ri, a 47-year-old mother who lives in a southern Seoul suburb.

This KakaoTalk emoticon character was created based on the stereotypical image of an Ajumma with short, permed hair and colorful clothing. (Cocoa)

In fact, Ajumma is strongly associated with the stereotypical imagery and behavior patterns that are widely derided in Korean society. For some, the word conjures up images of a woman with short, permed hair and a tendency to wear brightly colored clothing and a sun visor when outdoors. Ajumma are also sometimes seen as aggressive and self-centered, like pushing people out of the way to get a seat on the subway. Her perceived lack of femininity has led to the nickname “a third gender”.

How Ajumma came to be the subject of ridicule is a topic much discussed here in women’s studies. Many experts say this has something to do with the exclusion of women from the workforce and society’s lack of respect for housework and childcare. Any perceived loss of femininity and lack of manners is the result of adaptation to role or lack thereof in society, they said.

In everyday conservation, the stigma of Ajumma has led to various other labels for women in this age group, including counterintuitive salutations such as “imo”, “sanonim”, what you would call a supervisor’s wife in the workplace, “yeosanim”. ‘, a very respectful way of addressing a woman, and is usually used for first ladies, or even ‘eomeoni’, meaning mother.

Perhaps one of the most bizarre ways of addressing a middle-aged woman is “eonni,” which literally means “elder sister,” and is often used exclusively by women to refer to women slightly older than them that they are dating have a personal relationship. Some older men have called waitresses in restaurants “Eonni” even though they are young enough to be the customers’ daughters.

By Yoon Min-sik ([email protected])

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