Sŏlsa is the Korean word for diarrhea.
My family and friends are probably starting to suspect me of a scatological obsession. Well hey, don’t judge! But really, I created this blog in part to delve into those words people don’t teach in a class, words that are too slangy, too new, or too uncomfortable, and this is definitely one for most native English speakers.
Poo and the perils of cross-cultural communication
As I wrote before, poo has a different place in Korean culture: Cute as much as gross, and not quite as uncomfortable. Kwon and Kim (2015) found an example of this in their study of American adolescents’ reactions to a classic Korean children’s book, Doggy Poo (강아지똥, 권정생 작가), a story about accepting yourself and others in which the main character is literally a piece of poo. While the American students generally thought the story had a good message, they were at least initially weirded out at the poopy protagonist.
In Korea, unsurprisingly, people find sŏlsa disgusting rather than cute, but the word isn’t semi-taboo and nervous-laughter-inducing the way “diarrhea” is in English, where we’ll search all day for a euphemism when telling our bosses or friends why we couldn’t make it in or had to leave in a hurry.
Which is probably why Chan Ho Park (박찬호), the MLB’s winningest Asian-born pitcher, was so bemused at reporters’ reactions as he answered a question about his poor performance in the day’s game:
In Korean, the things he’s saying are just not weird—like telling someone you have a cold in English—and although he’s obviously a strong English speaker, he’s surprised by this.
It’s not only in the US that sŏlsa has tripped up cross-cultural communication efforts. My first boss in Korea, an American named Mike, told a story about going to a convenience store in Seoul and asking for salsa, to the horror of the lady behind the counter.
Sŏlsa does sound a little like salsa, maybe pronounced with a British accent, but it’s from the Chinese characters 泄瀉, which mean “to leak” and “to come out,” respectively. Um, accurate, but perhaps a little too accurate a description of sŏlsa.
Or, as some of my second-graders used to call it—because their previous English teachers were all too proper to teach them the proper word for sŏlsa—“water poo.” I hope you’re as excited to learn sŏlsa as they were when I taught them “diarrhea!”
Kwon, Soon Hee & Kim, Yang Ha (2015). “Reading beyond Cultural Barriers: A Study on American Adolescents` Responses to the Korean Picture Book, Doggy Poo.” Korean Language Education Research 50(5): 149-182.
The resident Korean/Classical Chinese speaker.