What does OPPA mean?


Created on 08 Aug, 2021
Revision of 16 Sep, 2022
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In Korea, Oppa is an honorific title used by younger girls/women to address older boys/men. To a certain extent, it is a respectful way to show who is the elder. Usually this happens when both parties achieve a certain relationship and agreement. This is very important there because Korean culture takes respect very seriously.

However, nowadays this norm is somewhat a mess. Oppa is also been used by younger girls/women to affectionately address older boys/men which they have a closer relationship (ex: boyfriend and idols), whether it is personal or not. See also: What does Oppa mean in BTS?

So, does Oppa mean boyfriend?
No, not exactly.
Some girls/women like to address their boyfriend as Oppa. But this doesn't mean that Oppa is the same as boyfriend.
In short, Oppa is something like "big brother". Analogously, Noona and Unnie are something like "big sister".

A Little Bit of Context

Age in Korea

In Korea, it is important to know the age of the person you are talking to, and to treat them formally if necessary. You may be from a western country where "age is just a number", but that is quite the opposite in South Korea. Not only that, but Koreans have their own age-based calculation system. When January 1st arrives, everyone becomes a year older, so to speak. The month you were born is not very important in this case.

However, a very important piece of this age-related information is the year the person was born. Depending on the Korean, they can actually calculate their age based on the lunar calendar instead of the Western New Year. In this case, your age is still calculated by the year you were born. Example: the person born in January 1993 is still considered the same age as those born in 1992, simply because Lunar New Year has not changed from the year they were born.

Someone born in 1989 may be 26yo in January 2016, but for Koreans he is 28yo.

For foreigners this may sound crazy !?!?

Oppa, Hyung, Noona, Unnie

Probably you have already heard these words on several different occasions. Maybe you live in Korea or watch a lot of Korean dramas and other TV shows. But, do you know what they really mean? Why they are used and when to use them? At first glance, they may look like silly words that are overused. However, it is really of great importance to be well informed about them.

Oppa is used by younger women to refer to their older brothers or men that are older than them to show their respect, whether they’re 10 years older than she is, or 1 year older than she is. It’s the same as the word noona that the younger men use to refer to older women. These terms are used when the two people get to a certain relationship, the older person would usually say “Hey, you can call me (correct term)”, and that’s when it would start to be used.

Hyung Men talking to older men
Noona Men talking to older women
Oppa Women talking to older men
Unnie Women talking to older women

However, before using these terms consider the following:

  • If there are decades of age difference between you two, you are less likely to use these terms.
  • Even if you are not talking directly to the person, you should refer to them by one of these terms.
  • You can avoid using these terms when you first meet someone. However, if you're in a Korean restaurant and the waitresses (usually an older women) are strangers to you, it won't be strange to call them by Noona or Unnie, regardless of the age difference.
When does age not matter?

There are cases where Koreans are less demanding about using such terms:

  • In general, if the age gap is small, what will determine the honorific term is how close the two are. However, nowadays, even many seniors no longer care much about that.
  • Since this is so intrinsic of their culture, Koreans may find weird to see foreigners using it (close to a "koreaboo").
  • At work, your title and status take precedence over everything else. At school, what matters is when you started and it will determine how you should refer to others. This also applies among colleagues of the same level of status at work.
  • At the university, it doesn't matter if the person is really older than you or not, if they started early, so you should always call them Seonbae or "older alumni". Those who started later may refer to you as Hubae, ie "junior".

Other than the terms presented here, there are still other terms that Koreans use when referring to each other based on their status, gender, who they are to you, and so on. However, these will be explained in other posts.

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