You’ve heard women scream “oppa” in K-dramas and Psy repeat it in Gangnam Style.
Oppa is the chameleon of Korean words. You can call the same guy oppa and the meaning changes based on your relationship.
This guide explains what oppa means in each situation and how to use it.
After reading this post, you’ll be able to use oppa properly, and also have a deeper understanding of Korean culture.
We also cover:
- what oppa does for you
- what church oppa style is
- how to tell if a girl has an “oppa oppa” or just an oppa
- and more!
When I teach Korean, the meaning of oppa is one of my favorite subjects. I grew up with an actual oppa and met many throughout my life which helps me understand the deeper meaning of the word.
Let’s get started!
Oppa means older brother or man in Korean and can only be used by a female. It’s an honorific word that shows the hierarchical social status of the subject and object.
Oppa has a variety of meanings depending on the situation and intention of the speaker. It’s a super fun word that can be innocent, endearing, or flirty depending on how you say it. Find out some of the nuances below!
What is the meaning of oppa in Korean?
The literal definition of oppa (오빠 in hangul) is “older brother”, used by women. It’s a super handy word because calling someone “you” in Korean is mostly reserved for close friends, thanks to the hierarchy in Korean society.
Oppa is a way to say “you” to an older Korean guy without offending him. It’s a must for Korean females.
Here are the best situations to use oppa.
1. Actual brother
The most common meaning of oppa is biological brother. To emphasize that he’s your own brother, you can add “chin” before oppa: chin oppa. Koreans can sense when you’re talking to an actual brother by tone and level of speech.
You can always know when a girl is referring to a biological brother, because of the flat tone.
2. Male relatives and cousins
Another meaning of oppa is male relative or cousin.
An older male cousin in Korean is “sa-chon oppa”, but most women will simply call them “oppa” directly.
About Korean Age
Age is calculated differently in Korea according to these rules:
- Everyone is 1 year old when they’re born since time spent in the womb counts.
- Everyone ages 1 year on New Year’s Day, January 1st.
When in doubt, compare birth years instead by asking “몇년생이세요? (myut-nyun-saeng-yi-seh-yo?)” to get a quick idea of what to call someone.
3. Older male friend
Yet another meaning of oppa is older male friend.
You can also address an older male in a friendly way by calling him oppa. This can be interpreted as flirting, so use with caution.
- Example: 옆집 오빠 (Oppa next door)
4. Male upper classmates
Oppa also means older male classmate.
If you’re a girl in college, you start calling older males by “name + sunbae (senior)”, which is gender neutral. If you get close to them, you can call them “name + oppa” or just “oppa“.
Many Korean guys love hearing younger gals refer to them as oppa. You’ll know because they’ll say so and ask you to do so. Use this to your advantage.
- Example: Jimin sunbae → Jimin oppa
Some women don’t call male oppa to avoid misunderstandings.
5. Handsome guy (usually, celebrity)
Oppa can simply refer to a handsome guy or celebrity.
Koreans say, “If you’re handsome, you’re oppa” or “all handsome men are oppa” regardless of age.
6. Darling or honey
Oppa is used to refer to one’s husband or boyfriend. Since most Korean women date and marry an older guy, they keep calling their significant other “oppa” even after marriage.
Korean girlfriends and wives can say so much by using “oppa” with different intonation. In general, Korean men are able to distinguish the tones, and can tell if she’s happy, annoyed, pissed off or wants something. They tend to struggle if they can’t figure it out.
For more info on how oppa works when dating, check out this article.
- If you’re a guy, don’t refer yourself “oppa” in a sentence. Many Korean women will find it unattractive or sleazy.
- Example: “오빠가 말이야~ (Oppa is(I am)…)” “오빠가 뭐해줄까? (What can oppa(I) do for you?)”
Oppa is a powerful tool, like fire. The right amount can heat your home, while too much will burn it down. Some girls use the word to get what they want, like free stuff (subeesu) at pubs and bars, by saying it to male staff.
Attractive Korean girls will also use oppa to make guys do their assignments at uni or tedious stuff like installing Windows or other software.
It can lead men on and be more trouble than it’s worth. Please use oppa responsibly.
Rules of using oppa
- You must be female to use it unironically, there are only 3 exceptions. You’re a male who’s joking around or telling a female to call you it or you’re at a noraebang singing Gangnam Style.
- You must say it to a male.
- The male must be older than one year but not older than 10 years. Anything higher than ten years and you can choose between samchon or ajeossi.
- You must be related or have a familiar and friendly relationship with him.
Some English speakers have the misconception that oppa is only for men under 30. Not true! Once an oppa, always an oppa. I’ve heard 60-year-old women refer to their brother or older male friend as oppa.
The only difference is that you wouldn’t call a man over 30 you don’t know oppa. You could call him ajeossi, samchon or sajangnim.
How to use oppa when you first meet someone
You don’t during the first meeting. Oppa is a magic word that takes time to use. You have to feel comfortable with the guy first.
It’s a good idea to avoid using their name or referring to them as “you” at all in the beginning. Names aren’t that important in Korea compared to titles and kinship terms.
You can also leave out subjects in a Korean sentence. This allows you to talk to someone without saying “you” or their name.
There are people I’ve interacted with for decades and still don’t know their name. This is especially true for older people who own cafes or restaurants. I mainly call them sajangnim or owner.
You can’t always rely on others when it comes to figuring out what to call someone. Close friends can use “ya” to refer to one another while acquaintances will use name + ssi.
If this sounds complicated, don’t fret! Many Koreans will let you know what they’d like to be called. Since you speak English, they might even tell you their English name. Most Koreans have an international name that their first English teacher gave them randomly in grade school.
There are a few exceptions to this rule. Some females use oppa when trying to butter up male store owners to get subeesu. This can be super effective with borderline or newly-minted ajeossi, but beware, they might take it seriously.
How to call someone oppa directly
Once you’re comfortable with someone and they gave you permission, simply say “oppa” when talking to them or calling them from across the street. You would use it in place of “you” or a name.
How to refer to someone indirectly as oppa
Even in conversations with someone else, you still refer to them as oppa or attach oppa after the person’s name you’re speaking about.
For example, you’d say “minho oppaga sajwosseo (민호 오빠가 사줬어)” when talking to another friend about him.
It’s a natural way to show respect and how they relate to you.
How the meaning of oppa changes throughout a relationship
Girls start calling an older guy oppa when they have something in common or a romantic spark. The word at this point is akin to “big bro” or a term of endearment reserved for close friends.
If she’s into him, she’ll add a little spice when saying oppa to flirt. Men will often pick up on these cues.
If nothing romantic develops, the meaning remains the same over time.
Girls still call a guy oppa after they become a couple. In that case, the intonation changes to be more affectionate when talking with her beau. The meaning becomes more like “darling”, “honey” or “sweetie”.
In the rare case the boyfriend gets a job at her company or develops a professional relationship, his lady won’t call him oppa in a business correspondence. She will call him by his formal work title.
(Korean company couples tend to keep their relationship hush hush, but “everyone including the fax machine knows”)
After breaking up, she won’t call him at all. Koreans rarely remain friends after a breakup.
What does oppa do for you?
For biological sisters:
Chin oppa (biological older brother) is a strange creature. In a very RARE case, super nice chin oppa exist. Most chin oppa treat their younger sister like an underling who runs errands or cooks for them. But still, when it comes to other guys bullying their sister, oppa become protective because they want to be the only one with the privilege of teasing them.
Korean chin oppa are very blunt about weight or looks. Whenever I gained 1kg (about 2 pounds), my brother always said I looked chubby or fat and needed to go on a diet. This is common in Korean culture.
Many Korean girls without oppa envy the ones with one. Whenever they ask, “isn’t it nice to have oppa?”, someone with oppa will often express disgust, “ugh”, because it can be more trouble than you’d think.
Korean girls will sometimes call their chin oppa “eomma adeul (my mom’s son)” because they don’t want to even acknowledge any relation by calling them oppa.
On the other hand, dating oppa can be nice. In other words, oppa always seem nicer than my “mom’s son”.
Oppa (older guys) will try to buy you everything. They’ll also drive you home, even if you live on the opposite side of the city. Some Korean women only date oppa because they feel more mature or responsible. However, they sometimes tend to be overprotective and controlling.
What it’s like to have oppa
I grew up with a brother (biological oppa) who’s 2 years older than me.
We were super close as kids, then fought a lot going through puberty like most siblings. He still protected me from bullies, so he could be the only one.
Overall, he was still pretty nice. Many oppa bad mouth their little sisters, but mine would brag about me. This led to older kids being nice to me. We started getting along again when I was in the 12th grade preparing for suneung.
Since he’d already taken the test, he helped me study better to raise my suneung score.
After the test, my brother also gave me a ton of tips on how to act at university in order to make friends, not enemies. It consisted of how to be adored by sunbae (older classmates) to avoid being bullied.
For example, don’t dress up too much during OT (orientation) or female sunbae might get jealous. It was a key part of socialization, since there’s no manual on this stuff in Korea.
In the end, some paths weren’t meant for me because I’m an introvert while he’s an extrovert. Still, everything he taught me was valuable.
Although some of my friends say it’s hard to keep in touch with biological oppa, it really depends on each sibling (nammae: sibling that consists of brother and sister) as I frequently chat with mine.
I’m lucky to have a nice oppa in my life.
What it’s like to date oppa
Oppa might pick you up, because he probably has a car (having a car under 30 is uncommon in Korea) and will buy you lots of gifts (Korean guys buy expensive gifts for their gf).
Another cool thing about dating oppa is they don’t mind tedious things like fixing your computer or appliances.
On the other hand, the worst part of dating oppa was their desire to control me. They often decided everything from the restaurant to what I ordered. I appreciate the help, but I didn’t want them to set a course for my life.
(For example, my ex told me not to study English nor go to the States. You can imagine how that went.)
They’re definitely more old-fashioned when it comes to gender roles compared to men from western countries. Imagine any male character from Mad Men, but with a Korean cultural background.
These are some of the reasons why some Korean girls are reluctant to call non-Korean guys “oppa”. Oppa in Korea have unique behaviors and mannerisms.
Also, if a Korean girl is fluent in English, they might want to keep the relationship Western style and avoid calling you oppa. They’ll also say your name or you.
So, don’t take it the wrong way if a Korean girl is hesitant to call you “oppa” or says it feels weird. It’s probably because of the reasons I mentioned.
But overall, it’s nice to date an oppa in Korea!
How to make oppa honorific?
Knowing what to call someone is tough for Korean language learners.
There are two levels of kinship terms, plain and honorific.
The honorific suffix “-nim” is the most common way to make a word honorific. But, it’s never used for oppa.
We have different words for oppa honorifics, which are orabeoni or orabeonim. These are old-school words, mostly used by older people or in families that value traditional etiquette. You’ll hear them a lot in historical K-dramas.
What is church oppa style?
Church Oppa literally means “oppa that you meet at church”.
Over time, “church oppa” has become an expression for a nice guy or Mr. Perfect, similar to “Umchinah”.
Umchinah is an abbreviation for my “mother’s friend’s son” (엄마 친구 아들) who’s perfect in every way that your mom always compares you to.
The requirements of church oppa are:
- Fair skin tone and neat appearance
- Sincere, diligent and polite lifestyle
- Decent and clean fashion style (horn-rimmed glasses are a plus)
- Positive expressions using only nice words
- Excellent guitar or singing skills with a clear voice
Boyfriend, friend or brother?
This gets confusing when a guy is interested in a gal and she keeps calling someone oppa. Like the Biz Markie song, “Just a Friend”, you’re unsure if she has a special fella in her life.
Koreans often can tell the relationship from the context and tone, while non-Koreans will be stuck trying to figure it out. The trick is to listen to the inflection of oppa to see if she’s talking about a romantic interest.
Koreans will simply ask “which oppa” when they’re unsure of who’s being referred to.
Different ways to say oppa and what they mean
The standard way to call a blood relative like a brother or male cousin. If there’s no zhuzh on the word, they’re probably talking about family. The flat, emotionless tone is a dead giveaway.
This is a whiny way to get what you want. One of the most powerful techniques of aegyo. It might be targeting a friend or boyfriend.
Playful way to joke around or show annoyance.
General way to say hi and show that you’re glad to see someone.
The sharp and abrupt tone is a dead giveaway that she’s pissed off. Easily remedied with dessert or a nice dinner.
Oppa said with an eerily calm tone, usually is followed by “we need to talk” as in “오빠 우리 얘기 좀 해”. Beware, this is scarier than the previous OPPPA!
Where Have I Heard Oppa from?
You’ve probably heard oppa more times than you can count.
It’s the same oppa from the song, Gangnam Style by Psy. You know, the part when he says “oppa gangnam style” in the hook.
You’ll hear young women saying it often in any K-drama you watch, either in happy or angry tones.
There was also a K-pop idol group in the 90s called O.P.P.A. You’ll hear it often in K-pop songs as well.
What is brother in the Korean language?
What you address your brother as in Korean depends on your relative age and gender.
- If you’re younger than your brother and female: oppa
- If you’re older than your brother and female: their name or nuh which means “you” in banmal
- If you’re younger than your brother and male: hyung
- If you’re older than your brother and male: their name or nuh which means “you” in banmal or casual speech
Does oppa mean boyfriend?
Oppa simply refers to an older brother/man in a friendly tone. It can also mean a boyfriend or husband. You need to read between the lines in order to tell which one.
What’s the difference between Oppa and Hyung?
Both Oppa and Hyung mean an “older brother” in Korean, but Oppa is used by women and Hyung is used by men.
Is oppa used romantically?
It can be neutral or romantic depending on the tone or using Aegyo. It’s all about nuance.
What’s oppa in Satoori ?
The most well-known satoori (dialect) for oppa is Oppaya used in Gyeongsang-do. Seoul guys tend to love it when they hear the satoori version oppaya, because it sounds cute.
Did we miss anything?
Let us know your thoughts on oppa in the comments!
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