Stress 스트레스

Stress (스트레스)–or, to formally romanize it using McCune-Reischauer, sŭt’ŭresŭ–is, well, stress, in the “I’m so stressed out” sense of the word.


When I was taking evening Korean classes at Ehwa Womans [sic] University in 2008 or so, we were given a short writing assignment to complete in class. The eight or so of us in this maybe mid-beginner course were plugging away silently, pens to paper, when one of us asked the teacher, “How do you say ‘stress’ in Korean?”

“Suh-tuh-reh-suh,” she answered.

We all looked up at her in some confusion, thinking we must have misheard, or maybe she was joking. The Korean word for stress was an over-pronounced version of stress? Had Koreans, I wondered–at the time rather less studied in linguistics than today–not experienced stress before English speakers came?

English stress webtoon.jpg
Panel 1: “I suddenly have to deal with a foreign buyer…Ugh, so stressful…” Panel 2: “There’s an R here, not an L.” Panel 3: “Aaaack!!!! Stress!!!” … “Out of 700 workers surveyed, 86.1 percent said English is a stress in their work life.” By 김대영 on

One might wonder, since English achievement is a big source of stress for many South Koreans from kindergarten to retirement. In fact, Korean dictionaries don’t present any real equivalents to the borrowed sŭt’ŭresŭ for the psychological type of stress, and when I asked my household native Korean speaker (aka the husband) about synonyms, he couldn’t really think of one, either.

Naver Dictionary does give us a few words with similar meanings. These include kinjang (긴장; tension, anxiety), puran (pronounced more like bull-ahn, 불안; anxiety, apprehension); and tchajŭng (or jjajeung, 짜증; annoyance). But, none are quite the same, so I thought I’d see what they use in North Korea, where I guess you could say that language planning has been more focused on “purity” than in the South.

For mostly obvious reasons, North Korean Korean, or as they call it, Chosŏnŏ (조선어), has many fewer English loan words than South Korean Korean, or Han’gugŏ (Hanguk-eo, 한국어). However, even here, it seems, sŭt’ŭresŭ has filtered into the official literature: The South Korean newspaper Hankyeoreh reported in May 2002 that the North Korean Communist Party’s Rodong Shinmun (로동신문 in NK, 노동신문 in the South), or the Worker’s Newspaper, had printed the word for the first time. The Hankyoreh story notes that while sŭt’ŭresŭ had been included in North Korean encyclopedias and dictionaries and such, it had never been used in news stories, broadcasts, magazines or other such media. It adds that the people also use different expressions to talk about the phenomenon, including chŏngsinjŏk appakkam (정신적 압박감, mental pressure or strain), kinjanggam (긴장감, stress or anxiety), sin’gyŏngsŏng (신경성, nervousness).



The Korean word sŭt’ŭresŭ obviously comes from the English word stress and has been in the language for a while–it was already in common usage in 1990, the year of the earliest articles searchable on KINDS, for example.

Like many words adopted from one language into another–and particularly from a language like English or German into a language like Korean or Japanese–the word sounds quite different in its borrowed form. Most notably, the one-syllable English word has four syllables when rendered in Korean: sŭ-t’ŭ-re-sŭ, or, to use Revised Romanization, seu-teu-re-seu.

You might think this is no big deal. Surely your average Korean will understand the word if you say it English-style, right? I mean, it’s from English, after all…

Syllables made a big difference when a friend and I were trying to discuss churros. (Photo by User: Dominik – 자작, CC BY-SA 3.0. View original.)

Well, maybe not. Syllables can make a big difference. One night, for example, I went out in downtown Seoul with a Korean friend, M., who speaks English well and got her master’s degree in England. As we waited for a seat at a Bonggu Beer (봉구 비어), we started chatting in English about recent food trends, and I asked if she’d tried churros, which were blowing up in a big way. “Churros? No, what’s that?” she asked. Once I started explaining, we quickly realized the problem: She knew (and had tried) them as ch’u-ro-sŭ (추로스). That extra syllable made a big difference in our communication.

Why? To give a short-ish answer, every language has its own pattern of sounds that can go together in a syllable. In some languages, such as Hawaiian, there are very few options, and you can only have syllables like a and lo and ha: a vowel (V) or a consonant and vowel (CV). In other languages, like English, there are lots and lots of options, from a (V) and lo (CV) and ha to twelfths (CCVCCCC) and, of course, stressed (CCCVCC)–remember, we’re counting sounds, not letters. We call these multi-consonant combinations consonant clusters.

Korean is somewhere in the middle: It mostly has CV syllables like dae (대) and CVC syllables like han (한) and of course, V syllables like oh (오), and never more than one C at the beginning of a syllable. What this means is that when words from languages with more complex syllabic structure like English get borrowed into languages with less complex syllabic structure like Korean, the consonant clusters get broken up into individual syllables with weak-sounding vowels. So we go from stress to sŭ-t’ŭ-re-sŭ. (This is the same reason why McDonald(‘s) has six syllables in Japanese.)

That’s all I’m going to say about the syllabic structure of Korean for now–it’s not an area of linguistics I’m super interested in–but if you want to know more, google phonotactics.


Personal experience // graduate school lectures

Resident native Korean speaker.

“북한 노동신문, `스트레스’ 용어 처음 사용.” 한겨레. 2002년5월22일. 인터넷. 2016년5월30일.

“스트레스.” 네이버 국어 사전. n.d. 인터넷. 2016년5월29일.

by Sara McAdory-Kim

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