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?)