What does oppa mean in Korean? Technically, oppa means simply older brother. In Korean, certain family relationships have different words to be used by males and females, so oppa is what a girl calls her older brother, while boys say hyŏng/hyeong (형). Unlike in many or most Western cultures, you don’t call your older siblings (or older people in general) by just their given name in Korean–you call them, to their face and to others, by their title or relationship to you, or maybe their name + their title or relationship to you. In this sense, oppa is often used for older male cousins as well.
However, oppa is not only used with family; it can be used by a woman or girl for any man who’s not too much older than her who she’s close to for some reason. For example, on the school playground, a second-grade girl might call a third-grade boy oppa, or a college sophomore might call a male senior oppa. It’s also often what young women call their slightly older boyfriends, especially when employing aekyo/aegyo/egyo (애교)–which I’ve discussed more below.
As far as I can tell, oppa is a native Korean word.
According to an article by Choi Hang Beom (최항범) in the journal New Korean Life (새국어생활, 2002), no words related to oppa appear in documents from the time of Late Middle Korean (15th and 16th centuries). Instead, the word first appears in writing in Modern Korean (17th to 19th centuries) in a sort of Korean-Chinese dictionary/reference of word explanations (called 華音方言字義解, 화음방언자의해) as ol-a-pa (올아바–in this section, I’m using dashes for some words to indicate the subtle differences in syllabic spelling):
“In Chosŏn custom, a younger sister calls an older brother ol-a-ba. This originally comes from the sounds of the three characters 外亞父 [외 아 부] combined and transformed.”*
While the word is compared here to three Chinese characters, I’m pretty sure it’s actually a native Korean word that is rendered this way for the convenience of Classical Chinese readers, as the evolution of the word described by Choi, below, suggests.
In the above text, ol-a-ba is a rendering of o-la-ba (오라바), which, although it did not appear in Late Middle Korean documents, seems like it was used as a title or appellation from early on, Choi says. We can guess this, he says, because we can also see that the corresponding word olabi (오라비), meaning a woman’s younger brother, was also used in Late Middle or Early Modern Korean. (Olabi is also used as a familiar form of olabŏni, 오라버니, an honorific for “older brother.”) Thus, Choi suggests, the “older brother” equivalent o-la-ba was probably used from around the same time.
If you analyze the words piece by piece, Choi tells us, ol is the same ol in olbam (올밤) and olbyeo (올벼), which mean “early chestnut” and “early rice,” according to Daum Dictionary. So, it seems like this ol means early, or, Choi suggests, young or immature.
The aba part originally refers to the same relationship as the Chinese character 父 (부, pu), which means “father” and is the same character in words like pumo (부모, parents). So, Choi says, o-la-ba appears to literally mean “man that’s younger than [my] father.”
Near the end of the nineteenth century, o-la-ba appears in writing as op-pa (옵바) for the first time, Choi continues. Note that although this looks pretty much the same as the present form in English, it’s spelled differently in Korean. At the beginning of the 20th century, the word appears in writing as ŏp-pa (업바), oppa (오빠, the present form) and other forms–this was during a period when Korean spellings were not so standardized as they are today. By the time it appeared as today’s oppa, in 1938, it was defined as “a word a girl calls her olabi (brother).”
While back in the day, olaba just meant male sibling, it was around this time–in the early twentieth century–that the meaning of oppa seems to have narrowed to refer only to older brothers, Choi adds. However, he doesn’t get into how it’s grown into its presence sense of “slightly older guy I’m close to.”
With the release of PSY’s “Gangnam Style” in 2012, oppa was let loose on the world–although from my reconnaissance (consisting of living in England beginning shortly after its release), many non-Koreans who heard it had no idea what it meant or even exactly what the word was.
Of course, when PSY calls himself oppa, he using the word not in the sense of older brother from the same mother–he’s (facetiously) saying that he’s the kind of guy who’s popular with the wealthy and fashionable ladies of Gangnam, who call him oppa in the “older man I’m close to” sense.
In English, it sounds a bit weird to call a desirable older man brother. We do, however, have the term daddy as in “Who’s your daddy?” or “sugar daddy.” While the term is not as pervasive in English as oppa is in Korean, it’s another example of an extension of an older-male-familial term into the realm of flirtation and romance.
And speaking of oppa and flirtation–the word is often used by girls employing aekyo. I’ll delve deeper into this term in a future post, but here’s a video that gives an overview:
Oppa, in both the Revised and McCune-Reischauer.
*Thanks to my wonderful husband/our household historian of China for help with the Chinese characters!