I don’t remember when I first learned that the Korean word for chili pepper, gochu, is also a colloquialism for penis. But since my first job in Seoul involved teaching sixth graders, it was probably pretty early on.
Gochu nationalism: How chili peppers came to Korea
But let’s backtrack a minute here. The chili pepper is pretty central to Korean cuisine – though it wasn’t always around. You know all that red-orange kimchi that’s been the craze around the world the last few years? A lot of people think it may have been totally white until recent centuries.
That’s because the chili pepper originated in the Americas and only came to East Asia as part of the “Columbian Exchange” that also brought potatoes to Ireland and chocolate to Switzerland. I spent an hour or so questioning my worldview after reading this shady article* alleging that gochu are native to the Korean peninsula, but the author’s claim that peppers “started to grow on the Korean peninsula a few billions of years ago,” possibly after the seeds were brought there by birds, is only one of the many clues that this is a work of propaganda fueled by nationalism/exceptionalism/greed. (Because birds and land plants hadn’t even been invented one billion years ago, sir…)
So anyway. Leaving aside the bizarre and frankly disgusting nationalistic tendency some people have to think that if anything in their own culture originated elsewhere, that would make it less valuable, and therefore they must contort the facts to validate their own worldview so that –
No, no, I said let’s leave that aside.
So, gochu. Gochu, the chili pepper, has been in Korea for more or less 500 years. An Jeong-yun (안정윤), a researcher at Korea’s National Folk Museum, writes that gochu is first mentioned in the records in 1614. The word itself, however, is not used until 1749, according to Seoul National University professor Jung Byung-Sul (정병설).
This has an interesting parallel with English, which actually relates to the nationalistic assertions that pepper has been in Korea for ages unknown. In English, as you probably know if you’re reading this, we have all sorts of capsicum peppers: jalapeño, habanero, bell, poblano, banana, scotch bonnet, Thai, and of course, Korean chili, or gochu. But we use that same word for plants from the unrelated piper genus – black pepper and white pepper – and also for Sichuan pepper, which is again totally unrelated to either.
Something similar happened in Korean, it seems. According to An’s very excellent piece, alas in Korean only, and also my extremely multilingual partner in life and other sources, the word gochu has Chinese roots in the word gocho (고초, or 苦椒 in hanja), which means “painful pepper.” As I said, though, this word doesn’t appear in our written records until 1749. Instead, Jung writes, other words were used: hocho 호초, beoncho 번초, namcho 남초, dangcho 당초, etc.
The cho in each of these words is basically the part that means “pepper,” and what became the chu in gochu later. Hocho, I guess, is probably the antecedent to huchu 후추, today’s word for “black pepper,” and kind of hilariously, the hanja for the ho means “barbarian.” The beon also means “barbarian,” while nam means “south” and dang is what the Japanese used for China back in The Day. (Again, thanks for the hanja help, multilingual life partner!)
So basically – who knows what exactly these peppers were? In spite of nationalistic contortions, they were almost certainly, at least before the sixteenth century, not referring to the chili pepper that we call gochu today. They just had to call this new stuff something, and as in English, because it had a certain sort of effect on the mouth, they called it “pepper.”
Gochu as a slang word for penis
So, back to the penis talk, because really that’s why you clicked, right?
Unfortunately, this is not the kind of slang used by stereotypical gangsters, teenagers, or cool people. Gochu is indeed a colloquialism for penis, but it’s mostly one used by grandmas and little boys.
I encountered this most vividly when I taught at a Seoul yuchiwon (kindergarten and pre-K) for a few months back in 2012. One extracurricular enjoyed by my young charges, around four years of age, was to clasp their hands together, palms down, and extend downward one middle finger, which they would wiggle back and forth while shouting “gochu! gochu!” and running around the room.
But apparently, it’s basically the Korean version of “weewee.”
Korean sayings: The small pepper is spicy
Gochu is also the subject of a common Korean saying: 작은 고추가 맵다, or “the small pepper is spicy.” According to the American Chemical Society, within a species, small peppers do tend to be hotter than larger peppers, but it’s always dangerous to base your choices on this principle. This saying is kind of similar to the English saying “good things come in small packages” – i.e., don’t look down on something based on its size/appearances.
* I actually work in academic publishing and could go on at some length about the many shady things about this entire journal, which has the exciting and optimistic name of the Journal of Ethnic Foods and who knows, could have some good research buried in there somewhere, but clearly has several very questionable qualities from a publishing standpoint.
Romanization: I’ve used Revised Romanization here.
My multilingual partner in life.
All content copyright Sara McAdory-Kim unless otherwise specified.