Mil-tang (밀당) is a Korean word for what in English we might call the “game of love,” from playing it cool to really playing games.
This word is pretty new, a portmanteau of two native Korean words, milta, which means to push, and tangida, which means to pull, or, really, a contraction of milgo tangida (밀고 당기다), “to push and pull.” It’s this push and pull that, according to some theories of love anyway, drive relationships and keep them alive and exciting.
I’ve never been a huge fan of this kind of game, which was probably not good for my early-20s dating life (oh, the stories) but worked out in the long run. But, I know enough, and really, it’s not that different from love games elsewhere.
Perhaps the most basic type of mil-tang behavior is just not messaging someone back right away on Kakao Talk (or whatever messenger you use). The hubs and I both did this early in our relationship, because hey, there’s nothing less attractive in ssǒm (썸) than looking needy, and when you really like someone, you gotta try kinda hard not to come off that way—right?
The next level of mil-tang is going out and doing things without your guy and making sure your guy finds out about it through a casual social media post or mutual friend’s casual communication. I have but dabbled in this level of mil-tang.
Other levels of mil-tang, I hear, include things like standing people up, but this is uncool behavior and not my style. People see lower levels of mil-tang (which is practiced by both men and women) as sort of a necessary evil, but most would agree the higher degrees are just manipulative.
Mil-tang is not just for love. The hubs says you could use it for, say, a TV show that suggests an exciting and long-awaited event will happen soon but make you wait several episodes. And Wi Mi-ae (위미애), a high-schooler writing for the youth unification press core in 2011, used mil-tang as an analogy for relations between North and South Korea.
Mil-tang and Korean acronym slang
Mil-tang is also a good example of a really common type of Korean slang, the acronym, or tu(mun)jaǒ (두문자어 or 두자어, literally, “head character language/word”).
Unlike in English, where most acronyms are constructed of the first letter of each word of a phrase (i.e., NASA or ASAP), Korean usually puts together the first syllable of each word to make the new one (강연인 2016), with more or less the same meaning as the old one plus probably some social cachet (or covert prestige). Also differently than English, acronyms seem much more likely to be picked up as everyday slang—in English, sure, we use ASAP, OMG and FUBAR, but most acronyms are proper nouns.
Most Korean acronym slang are two syllables—whether from the influence of Chinese hanja vocabulary or another reason, Korean just seems to like two-syllable words. Another I’ve written about here is ch’i-maek (치맥), which, as many slang words do, has become part of the everyday language. And as I said before, the syllables are most commonly taken from the beginning of the words they’re abbreviating, though other combinations do happen (see 이선영 Lee Seon-yeong 2016, also apparently not a fan of slang).
The word mil-tang became a thing, it seems, in the mid- to late- 2000s—at least, that’s when you start finding references to it in newspapers and academic articles. But people have, I think, been doing mil-tang a lot longer than that.
After all, everyone plays love games.
Even Old Gregg.
강연임 (2016). “국어의 줄임말 현상에 따른 언어변이 양상과 문제점” 韓國言語文學 第97輯, 7-32.
이선영 (2016) “신어에서의 약칭어와 혼성어에 대하여.” 한국학연구 제41집, 269~291.
위미애 (2011). “진심 없는 ‘밀당’은 오히려 남북관계 부정적 영향만 – 진심 담긴 대북 정책 마련해야.” 민족21, 2011.7, 116-117.