Go-kwol (고퀄) is Korean slang for high quality, as in something that’s just really great. It’s a portmanteau – a word like labradoodle or cockapoo, made up from the parts of two other words that both contribute to its meaning.
Portmanteaux are common in Korean, but go-kwol is a rarer breed: the muttish spawn of a Chinese character-based word, or hanja, and an English one. (Chimaek 치맥 happens to be another.)
Go is the hanja 高, which means high or upper. It’s the same go you find in words like godeunghakgyo (고등학교, high school) and gogeup (고급, upper level/advanced, as in a skill, etc.).
Kwol, or qual (퀄), on the other hand, is short for the English word quality, as in “high quality” – something good. So together, go-kwol means high quality!
Playing word detective: tracing the origin of go-kwol
Go-kwol is not only a rare breed, it’s a baby word – a pup, you might say. One way etymologists trace a word’s origins is by finding when it first appeared in writing and what kind of writing it appeared in, which is why I often turn to KINDS, the Korea Integrated News Database System, a database of basically all Korean news items since 1990 plus a few papers’ archives from earlier periods. In this search, I found only four uses of go-kwol, all published since August 2017.
The first article where it appears is about the surprisingly good (go-kwol) photographs taken during a recent Marines training exercise, photos so dramatic they reminded the writer of the movie Dunkirk. In the article, go-kwol is put inside quotation marks and defined in parentheses as “high level” (높은 수준), showing an awareness by the writer that perhaps not all readers will know the term – evidence that it’s a word just making its way into the mainstream.
Its second appearance was not in quotes, but it was in a column with a very chatty tone. In its third appearance in KINDS, in an article about an upcoming television drama, it’s also in single quotes, though not defined. Its fourth appearance, in October 2017, is in a report on a meeting the singer Rain (비) had – it was part of a hashtag he used on his Instagram account when he posted a photo of it – see above.
Even though these are in newspapers, a somewhat staid form of communication in today’s big scheme, they are all rather casual sorts of articles and uses – nothing serious. This is further evidence that it’s a new word, as are the quotes enclosing it in two of the articles.
Of course, that doesn’t mean the word was invented in 2017. New words (well except perhaps dramatically relevant ones like Snowpocalypse) don’t usually make it into newspapers right away – that’s a sign they’re moving from spoken (in the past) or online use into more common and dignified parlance. Indeed, I first heard this word spoken in the fall of 2016 at the celebration of a friend’s successful dissertation defense.
Ethnographic research (uh, I mean, conversation with my Korean husband over a large order of B-dubs wings) gave further leads as to the origins of the word. He didn’t remember the 2016 conversation, but he did recall seeing go-kwol earlier, on video streaming or download sites, to describe the quality, especially of technical aspects, of a video. This led us to a search of YouTube, where indeed, we found the word as far back as 2013.
Further searching – on the News tab on Google, using the Sorted by Date option – revealed even earlier uses on online news sites that I guess don’t get indexed by KINDS. The earliest was on ZDNet Korea, a tech news site, in a story describing a recent video parodying the then-new iPhone 5’s release video. This was in September 2012, and go-kwol is described as being part of an internet jargon phrase meaning “pointlessly high quality” (쓸데없이 고퀄), used particularly for funny online videos that are very well made. (Side note, sometimes I feel like my blog posts are 쓸데없이 고퀄… ㅎㅎㅎ)
I could probably trace this back another few years if I dove into various online forums and other parts of the Korean web. However, I have a lot less time than I need to fill all my work, social, and personal obligations, so this will have to wait for another person or another time.
But I think we can gather that go-kwol began as internet jargon, moved into speech, and is now in the process of becoming a part of mainstream Korean language. Isn’t it exciting to witness the birth of a new word?
Romanization note: I have used Revised Romanization here.
My Korean husband.