hwajangsil 화장실: Talking toilets in Korean

I’m back! I haven’t been writing for a while because basically after the latest US presidential inauguration I was so sickened and upset I just dropped a lot of things. I’ve also been working on other projects. But now, finally, I’m coming back to this blog – which is great because I took so many photos during our winter trip to Korea with the idea of writing specific posts here! Enjoy 🙂

Talking toilets: Korean words for the restroom

Like most languages, Korean has a variety of words for the place we go to do our daily business. People (besides me, apparently, considering my posts on sul-ddong and sŏlsa) just don’t like to talk about it, and as one euphemism becomes less euphemistic, another one rises up to take its place.

In English, we have toilet, bathroom, restroom, WC or loo (in the UK), washroom (in Canada), powder room (in the past), and others.

Likewise, there are plenty of current and archaic words for toilet in Korean (although as I’ve touched on before, poop in some ways isn’t such a sensitive topic in South Korea).

Here are a few – and note that none are really referring to rooms with baths and showers:

Jongno 5-ga bathroom SMK.jpg
A public restroom at Jongno 5-ga Station in Seoul.

hwajangsil 화장실: Korea’s standard toilet terminology

Probably the most widely used term for washroom in Korean is hwajangsil (prounounced “hwajangshil”). This is the term posted on signs and what you’d use if you were asking how to find one. (A simple though somewhat graceless sentence for that would be hwajangsil ŭn ŏdi e yo 화장실은 어디에요? but like everywhere, I think you can get away with saying just hwajangsil in a worried voice.)

Hwajangsil comes from the Chinese characters 化粧室 – literally, “make-up room” – so maybe once it was kind of like the “Excuse me, I must powder my nose” thing you see in English in old movies. Now it’s just the generic word for restroom.

As you can see from the above photo, bathrooms – even public bathrooms – in Korea can be pretty nice and sleek these days. However, things used to be different.

temple bathroom haeuso
A more than 300-year-old toilet – or haeuso – at Seonam Temple in Jeollanamdo. (Source)

haeuso 해우소: the holy restroom

According to Daum Dictionary, the toilets in Buddhist temples are known as haeuso. Why? I don’t know why. According to that great modern sage, Wikipedia, Buddhist temples in Japan also have a special name for the toilet, tōsu or tōshi (東司). Maybe this is a thing in Buddhist temples all over. However, the words themselves seem not to be from the same source (though many Korean words do come from Japanese), as the source characters for haeuso are different: 解憂所.

Apparently, these characters for haeuso together literally mean “a place to get rid of your worries.” Maybe that sort of euphemism just resonates particularly in a temple. My husband, aka the household native Korean speaker, tells me he’s seen haeuso on signs for restrooms in subway stations as well, in an attempt, he suspects, to capture some kind of countryside nostalgia.

Taiwan toilet restaurant bathroom SMK
Back when pyeonso was the common term for toilet, most were probably squatters like this one from Taipei’s Modern Toilet restaurant – only with less rainbow walls.

pyŏnso 변소: the toilet until recently

At least according to this random stranger’s answer on Daum Tips (kind of like Yahoo! Answers, but maybe a tad less shady), pyŏnso used to be the common parlance for the toilet before hwajangsil took over. Indeed, the difference between the Google image search results for 화장실 (hwajangsil) and 변소 (pyŏnso) is vast. Which makes sense, since one rough translation of pyŏnso could be “shit place.”

According to sources, the toilet in the story below looked something like this. (Image source: The Sustainable Sanitation Alliance (SuSanA) is a network formed by organisations active in the field of sustainable sanitation.)

twitkan 뒷간 and p’usesik 푸세식: the nearly-deadly, old-school countryside toilet

Back in the day, and in the countryside not so far back in the day, outhouses (twitkan 뒷간) and pit toilets (p’usesik 푸세식) were de rigueur. They’re certainly better than nothing, but they also had their dangers: When my husband was a little kid in the early 90s, growing up on Jeju Island, he fell into a pit toilet where he nearly died from the fumes, as no one heard him calling for what he estimates was 30 minutes. He does not recommend the experience.

I don’t even know if p’usesik 푸세식 is a real word – it’s not in the dictionary. The husband thinks it’s in contrast to susesik 수세식, basically a flush toilet (su means water), since the p’usesik obviously lacked this feature. The p’u refers to the fact that it’s been dug, from p’uda (푸다), “to scoop out.”

Twitgan, which is fortunately not pronounced much like it looks in English, literally means “behind space.”

More info

You can find an even more complete list of toilet types in Korean here. At least I’m not the only one!

And if you still haven’t read enough about Korean toilets, I wrote in more detail about modern public restrooms in Korean on my more personal blog. Enjoy!

Selected Sources

이명재. “해우소(解憂所) 단상.” 2011년3월19일. 오마이뉴스. 2017년4월13일.

“화장실” 다음 국어 사전. n.d. 인터넷. 2017년4월11일.

장치선. [뉴스 클립] Special Knowledge <331> 화장실의 의미와 역사. 중앙일보 2011년8월8일. 인터넷. 2017년4월11일.

“해우소”. 다음 국어 사전. n.d. 인터넷. 2017년4월12일.

The husband. Thanks, husband!


All words and images by Sara McAdory-Kim unless otherwise noted. Header graphic derived from photo on pixabay.

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