Solo is Korean for single

Solo 솔로: Single (and sad?) in Seoul

When I wrote about Christmas in Korea last week, I mentioned a conversation with a young adult student that went like this:

Me: What are you doing for Christmas?

Him: *sad face*

Me: What’s wrong?

Him: I’m solo.

This was my first introduction to this term, solo (솔로, sollo properly romanized), an English-derived Korean word for single.

Solo: The fastest-growing group in South Korea

The word sollo has increasing resonance in Korea, as single-person households have increased from only 7 percent of households in 1985 to 24 percent in 2010 (Park & Choi 2015). Some of these are elderly folks whose spouses have died or middle-aged people who have divorced, giving the lie to the (personally, rather offensive) platitude I heard so many times in Korea that Koreans care more about their families than any other group of people. (I was once even required to record this statement for a listening test as part of my work.)

solo-figure-1
From Park & Choi 2015, p. 1187. No, I don’t totally understand how only 12 percent of Korean adults live alone but 24 percent of households are single-person, either, and they don’t really explain it, but the trends are similar in any case.

Many others who live alone, though, are young folks—there are even TV shows about them. Traditionally, and until pretty recently, offspring usually lived with their parents until they got married, unless they went to college far away or were in the military. These days, that’s less and less common, and many young adults end up living alone either by choice or by circumstance. My friend M, for example, lived alone to be near her work in Seoul, since her parents lived in another province and her brother lived all the way across town—but I rather think she liked the freedom.

screenshot from i live alone tv show
The TV show “I Live Alone” (“나 혼자 산다”) follows the lives of single celebrities, documentary-style. You can watch episodes with English subtitles, including this one, here.

Whole industries have sprung up to accommodate these young singles. Studio apartments—known in Korean as one-rooms (원룸, wŏllum) or office-tels (오피스텔, op’isŭ t’el)—have become increasingly common over the last 10 years. Even more recently, convenience stores, which have long sold single-portion to-go meals, have targeted singles in recent expansions, with some boasting large spaces for singles to eat or offering a service that accepts and holds packages ordered online.

Mŏkbang (먹방, lit. “eating room”)—web series where a person eats lots and lots of food in front of a camera, live, while conversing with watching fans—also speak to this trend; at least one scholar has suggested the popularity of these shows rests on the loneliness felt by single Koreans.

Combining mŏkbang with convenience stores, this guy eats a ton of food for a camera in a 7-11’s seating area.

Other words for “single” in Korean

Actually, “single” itself has been borrowed into Korean as another word for single, as singgŭl (싱글), pronounced, like sollo, pretty much the same as in English. Sollo, which appeared in this sense around 2003, has a nuance of wanting to be part of a couple that singgŭl lacks (나무위키). The more traditional word is mihon (미혼, “mee-hone”), from the Chinese characters 未婚, literally “not yet married.”

Another newly popular word, bihon (비혼, bee-hone), derives from this, replacing the mi– for “not yet” with bi-, from the Chinese character 非, for “not.” A lot of women, especially women who are single by choice, are calling themselves bihon instead of mihon these days, as bihon has more of an implication that they’re choosing not to get married, or just aren’t married, rather than being in some waiting stage of having not yet achieved marriage. So bihon is a kind of feminist word choice.

Feature: The Trend in Korea of Living Alone

Other uses of “solo” in Korean

In Korean, solo is also used in music for a performance featuring only one performer, as in English. It’s also a baseball term, as in a solo homer (솔로 호머). Is this an English thing too? I have no idea because I am massively ignorant about baseball.

 

A note on spelling and romanization: I prefer to use English spellings for English-derived words in this blog because it makes it easier for most people to read, although I have also used some McCune-Reischauer romanization in this post.

Sources

“솔로.” 나무위키. 2016년12월02일. 인터넷. 2016년12월13일.

“솔로.” 다음 영어 사전. n.d. 인터넷. 2016년12월13일.

Park, Hyunjoon and Jaesung Choi (2015). Long-term trends in living alone among Korean adults: age, gender, and educational differences. Demographic Research, 32, 1177-1208.

Personal experience.

The J-Hubbs.

4 comments

  1. “Household,” in the US at least, is generally a tax status more than anything else. My roommate and I, for example, are both considered single-person households despite, you know, living in the same apartment. I don’t know how the Korean census sets its definitions, but my guess is that you have 12% of people who are single and living alone, and another 12% who are single and have roommates.

    1. Huh interesting, Joe. Yeah I also wonder a little about how adult children living with parents count as “households” in Korea, since I think that’s much more common than roommates. I’m not sure for example if my parents-in-law count separately from my grandparents-in-law, since they all live together. That would explain a lot of it. (Also sorry for taking so long to approve this. I almost only get spam comments and rarely check them, alas! But I am so excited to get a non spam comment!)

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