Korean language and culture series: Hyungsu-nim vs. Jesu-ssi

In the introduction to the blog’s Korean Language and Cultures series, I posed the question, “Why do male characters in Korean dramas argue over whether to call their friend’s wife ‘hyungsu-nim’ or ‘jesu-ssi,’ when in English, they both translate to ‘sister-in-law’?” This was a topic scheduled for much later on in the series, far after topics like “oppa” and “hyung” first get covered. But alas, as I was watching the premiere of City Hunter last week, I almost keeled over when I saw two characters engage in a playful argument over this very issue. I knew I’d encounter many such examples in other future dramas because this is a topic that comes up over and over again, but I just couldn’t pass up on using this perfect example. And thus, this topic just got bumped up a notch or two… or a hundred.

And for the spoilerphobes, no worries! This post is free of any drama spoilers.

Both “hyungsu-nim” (형수님) and “jesu-ssi” (제수씨) mean “sister-in-law” as used by men. The difference is that “hyungsu-nim” is a term used by a man to refer to the wife of his older brother or an older brother-like figure (“hyung”).

For example, the actual Korean title for the drama My Sister-in-Law is 19 is “Hyungsu-nim is 19” (형수님은 열아홉). Just in that title alone, we can gather that the drama is told in a male character’s point of view and that he has an older brother whose wife is 19 years old. This is definitely much more telling than the English title that uses the word “sister-in-law,” never mind that the drama is sometimes referred to as just merely She is Nineteen. (Who the heck is “she”?)

In contrast, “jesu-ssi” is a term used by a man to refer to the wife of his younger brother or a younger brother-like figure (“nam dongseng”).

Let’s see the terms used in action. In Lie to Me, Hyun Ki-joon (KANG JI HWAN) is the older brother to Hyun Sang-hee (SUNG JOON). When Ki-joon gets married, Sang-hee would have to call his hyung’s wife “hyungsu-nim.” When Sang-hee gets married, Ki-joon would have to call his younger brother’s wife “jesu-ssi.” Pretty straightforward, right?

The same rule would also apply to brother-like figures and close friends born in different (typically, lunar) calendar years. By referring to the friend’s wife as “hyungsu-nim,” it means by default that the friend is like a “hyung” to whom he should defer to. And even in the terms themselves, “hyungsu-nim” has the more respectful bound noun “-nim” attached to the term, whereas “jesu-ssi” has the less deferential “-ssi” attached.

But how about between male friends of the same age?

Kim Sang Joong: Jesu-ssi, congratulations.
Park Sang Min: Punk, she’s your hyungsu-nim!

Can you imagine how these two sentences would get subbed into English? Perhaps into something like this:

Kim Sang Joong: Sister-in-law, congratulations.
Park Sang Min: Punk, she’s your sister-in-law!

It doesn’t make much sense. But doesn’t it make much better sense now that we know what the two terms “hyungsu-nim” and “jesu-ssi” actually mean?

Korean men typically call a wife of their close friend “jesu-ssi.” However, you may sometimes encounter scenes in K-dramas, like the example from City Hunter, where male characters bicker, usually just playfully, that the friend should call his wife “hyungsu-nim” instead. In such cases, he is either really older than the friend or he is just joking around that even though of the same age, he deserves the “hyung” treatment because he was born a few months or even a few days earlier. (To give an example, I was born three weeks earlier than one of my friends. I tried to take advantage of that and used to joke around, “Listen to me. I’m your unni!” Of course, no one took me seriously, but hey, it doesn’t hurt to try, right?)

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9 Responses to Korean language and culture series: Hyungsu-nim vs. Jesu-ssi

  1. Kristal says:

    I never noticed this in any dramas but thanks for the information. 🙂

    And is that Park Sang-min AKA Giant’s Lee Seong-mo in City Hunter holding a baby no less?! That alone makes me kinda want to watch even though I wasn’t planning on touching that one with a ten foot pole.

    *cries* Now I miss Giant!

    • blue says:

      Yup, that’s him alright! Although his is just a cameo appearance in the first episode. I personally wouldn’t recommend the drama otherwise and think you definitely made the wise choice in deciding not to touch the drama with a 10 foot pole…

  2. snow says:

    interesting! have heard of hyungsoo-nim, but not jesu-ssi, another thing to take note of when i watch k-dramas!

    loving these posts on cultural markers. keep it up!

  3. prissymom says:

    hi, blue! been keeping up with your blog even after 49 Days.

    I really look forward to your Korean language and culture series posts. They are all very interesting.

    I am not Korean, but I am Asian so I understand the preoccupation with establishing age so that a person will know how to address the other person in a respectful manner.

    Several things for clarification:

    1. I was going to ask about twins, triplets, etc. – of course the first one to come out is the older one hence will be addressed as hyung (and his wife, hyungsu-nim) by the ones that come out later. Even if the age difference is just a matter of seconds or minutes or hours, the rule will still be applied and enforced by the first one to come out, right?

    2. The age of the sis-in-law is not taken into consideration? For example, wife of younger bro is older than younger bro. She could either be the same age or older than older bro. Older bro will still address her as jesu-sshi because she is married to younger bro?

    3. How does one address husband of older sister? of younger sister? Or is this lesson reserved for another day?

    Thanks again for the lessons!

    • blue says:

      Hi prissymom! *waves*
      Great questions! Here are my responses:
      1. That’s correct! Between brothers, whoever pops out first is the hyung, and his wife would be the hyungsu-nim to the younger brothers.
      2. Again, that’s correct. It’s based on the relationships, not age here.
      3. Hehe, it’s reserved for another day because there are different terms for all those cases, and it also depends on your own gender.

  4. prissymom says:

    Another question – Among Koreans it is okay to ask a person his/her age directly?

    • blue says:

      Depends on the circumstances. What’s the occasion that you need to know the age?

      For example, in a typical business setting, you don’t really need to know the age of each other because the relationships are clearly established. One person may be a client, a customer, etc. And another person may have an official business title (manager, president, director, etc). Thus, the people involved would already have pre-established titles to refer to each other by.

      But in a more “social” setting, you may need to know each other’s age to establish some sort of hierarchy (who are you in relation to me)? In such situations, it’s okay to ask each other’s age. The typical way to do this is to ask the year that you were born.

      Even in Korea, it’s not always polite to ask age right away, but there are definitely more circumstances where it is perfectly okay to ask each other’s age than in other cultures. You just have to be savvy and use your street smarts to figure out when.

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