The word ssŏm and the phrases associated with it come from the English word something, or ssŏmssing (썸씽), as in, there’s something there. The Namu.wiki article on ssŏm calls it an internet neologism (인터넷 신조어) and adds that although it’s unclear who first used it, this kind of word is usually coined by students or women. It also suggests that while ssŏmssing has been around for a while to describe certain situations between men and women, ssŏm itself has only been used since 2009, based on a search of blogs and Naver Jishikin (네이버 지식인), the Korean equivalent of Yahoo! Answers.
A search on KINDS seems to bear this out: The first reference I could find to ssŏm in this sense was in an August 2012 article about the secret language of teens from the Herald Business (헤럴드경제). (Incidentally, why are adults the world over so obsessed with how teenagers talk?)
And according to my husband, this song from 2014 helped popularize the word. It also won Song of the Year at the 2015 Korean Music Awards, and the music video is incredibly cute and has English subtitles!
Of course, ssŏm doesn’t end with ssŏm: It’s used in a variety of expressions for talking about this stage of a relationship. Here are a few:
ssŏm t’ata / sseom tada 썸(을) 타다: Being in the state of ssŏm with someone. It literally means “riding ssŏm,” but a better translation might be “something’s going on.”
This word can be seen in action in a scene in My Love from the Star (별에서 온 그대), a popular drama from 2013-14, in which the rather frumpy owner of a comic book shop/library (manhwabang, 만화방), Hong Bok-ja, is convinced there’s something going on between herself and the leading man, the handsome Do Min-joon.
When she finds out about the romance between him and her old schoolfriend Cheon Song-yi, she says in a TV interview, weeping:
“도민준씨는 사실 저랑 썸 타는 사이였는데…”
“Actually, Mr. Do Min-Joon and I had something going on between us…”
(Incidentally, I found that quote in an article from 2014 in which ssŏm is still being explained and discussed as a new word the young folks are using.)
Two other characters, Belle and the Beast were truly ssŏm t’ata in this scene:
Where I’m from (the Southern USA), we call this “talkin’,” as in, “What’s up with you and Kevin?” “Oh, we’re just talkin’.”
ssŏm nam / sseom nam 섬남: A guy with whom you’re more than friends but not quite dating (yet).
ssŏm nyŏ / sseom nyeo 섬녀: A girl with whom you’re more than friends but not quite dating (yet).
A comedy program, Comedy Big League (코미디 빅리그), makes fun of ssŏm in a recurring bit called “Ssŏm & Ssam” (썸&쌈), ssam being short for ssa-um (싸움), or fight.
Even though that space between friendship and dating has been around for a while, I think ssŏm as it’s practiced today is a really modern phenomena, dependent particularly on the ubiquity of smartphones, the large number of single 20-somethings, and a loosening of dating norms in recent years.
So, have you ever had a ssŏm nam (썸남) or ssŏm nyŏ (썸녀)? Or are you in the middle of ssŏm right now?
My husband, aka resident historian of China and household font of Korean cultural knowledge.