Titles and ways to address others in Joseon society: Horse Doctor

horse doctor

While I was watching the historical drama Horse Doctor (MBC 2013) and trying to write recaps for each episode, one of the problems I had was trying to work out what the characters actual names were! And that’s because they are rarely called by their names! They are addressed by their title or relationship to the speaker. (This is still true for Korean society today) above we have Kim So Eun as Princess Sukhwi, Han Sang Jin as King Hyunjong, and Lee Sun Jae as Doctor Ko. 

Uh? What’s your name again? 😕

And it can get very confusing with all the different titles people use to address each other. In the work place people are called by their surname plus job title and at home everyone has their own title which can change depending on who they are talking to. Relationship to the speaker, rank, age, or gender can all play a part.  Though only some of these terms are used in contemporary society I think it’s interesting to be able to recognize them when watching Horse Doctor since the terms will crop up again and again in other historical dramas. So here I’ve tried to give a breakdown of the characters and how they are addressed by others. :)

The King

The king’s subjects call him Your Majesty = jon-ha (전하 殿下) 
Everyone is lower than the king except the queen mother, so she uses a different title when she addresses him. She calls him chu-sang (주상  主上)


The Queen Mother

Everyone except her children, address her as te-bi-ma-ma 대비마마 大妃媽媽
Her children – King Hyojong and Princess  Sukui – and her daughter-in-law (the queen) address her as o-ma-ma-ma 어마마마


 The Queen

Jung-jon-ma-ma 중전마마 中殿媽媽 is used to address the queen. The king and the queen mother just call her  jung-jon 중전 中殿 without the honorific ma-ma at the end.


Royal and Yangban ladies

The princess and noble ladies such as Jinyung and Eunso are addressed as ma-ma-(nim) 마마(님)媽媽(님) Ma-nim 마님 媽님 was also used to address noble ladies in a higher rank than the speaker. It was like the female equivalent of 나으리 na-u-ri. Jinyung and Eunso are sometimes called 아가씨 aggashi / ashi too, which was another polite way to address a young lady.

Princess Sukhui

Princess Sukhui can be addressed by her full title ‘Princess’ 공주마마 (公主 媽媽 kong-ju ma-ma) but we often hear her lady-in-waiting, Lady Kwak, simply address her as ma-ma 마마. The king, queen, and the queen mother just call her 공주 kong-ju without the honorific ending ma-ma since they are above her in status.


Working women are addressed by their job title. So at the hospital Jinyung is addressed as ‘nurse’ 의녀님 ui-nyo-nim. But usually only women from the lower classes worked. And so it’s an awkward situation at first for the others at the hospital as they don’t know how to treat her or address her since technically her level is higher than the other nurses. Inju, the head nurse, Jinyung’s father Myunghwan, Sungha, and finally Kwanghyun call her by her name with the panmal (반말) informal particle (ah) at the end – Jinyung-ah 지녕아.


Working Women

Working women were addressed by their job titles or surname plus job title.

Inju is addressed by her title ‘Head Nurse’ 수의녀님 su-ui-nyo-nim. And as she has a job we can assume that her social level is not as high as Jinyung and Eunso.

The princess’ lady-in-waiting, Court Lady Kwak, is addressed as Kwak Sang-gung 곽상궁 尙宮 (Sang gung means court lady). But there’s a funny scene in episode 35 when Kayong (Dr Saam’s female assistant who doesn’t seem to be able to use honorific speech) addresses Lady Kwak as 아줌마 ‘adjumma much to Lady Kwak’s shock and horror – adjumma is used to address middle-aged ladies and nobody likes to think they are middle-aged!


Very High Ranking Officials

Dae-gam  大監 

Daegams wear red uniforms and hold top positions in the government.

Lord Jung is addressed as Dae-gam 대감 大監 (My Lord) by his subordinates at court.

Of course family members address him differently depending on their relationship to him. Dushik (Eunso’s brother) calls him 사장 (sa-jang) the polite way to address his sister Eunso’s father-in-law. Eunso addresses him in the polite form for ‘Father’ as a daughter-in-law should: 아버님 a-bo-nim. (these family titles would be the same in any family and the fact that Lord Jung is a Dae-gam is irrelevant)

Lord Oh is another Dae-gam. (He enters the drama in episode 34)


High ranking officials

Yong-gam영감 令監 is used to address high ranking noblemen (they also wear red uniforms at court). Heads of departments can be Yong-gams. For example Dr Ko (and later Myunghwan) as the head of the hospital is a yong-gam.

This title is sometimes still used in contemporary society to address judges or prosecutors. And I sometimes hear wealthy older wives call their CEO husbands ‘Yong-gam’ in K-drama! But this title is going out of fashion and it’s not used these days by younger people. And the meaning is changing – according to the Naver online dictionary today yong-gam just means ‘old man’ Oh! :(

Dr Ko is called 수의영감 (su-iu yong-gam) head of the 삼의사 (sam-ui-sa) all three departments of medicine at court. He is above Myunghwan who is only in charge of one of the departments, the 내의원. But Myunghwan is also addressed as yong-gam by those beneath him.

We don’t see much of the eunuchs in this drama but the head eunuch is also a yong-gam and is addressed as 상선 영감 尙膳 sang-son yong-gam


Middle ranking men

Middle ranking men are addressed as ‘Sir’ 나으리 Na-u-ri (no Chinese characters) It’s used to address men in higher rank than the speaker but lower than a yong-gam. They tend to wear blue uniforms if they work at court.

But again within the family unit these men have different titles. Eunso calls her brother Dushik, ‘big brother’ 어라버니 o-ra-bo-ni. (the honorific form of 오빠 oppa) But Jinyung just calls Sungha by his name plus informal particle (Sungha-ya) – so he must be younger than her.


Other Working Men

There were three kinds of state exam during the Joseon period. The most prestigious was the civil service exam for yangban. Those who passed could become elite civilian scholar officials in the government. (See dae-gam above)

Military guards

The next best exam to pass was the military exam for yangban and also middle classes but this class was considered below the scholars. Guard Kang is in the military class and is addressed by his job title Kang gun-kwan 강군관 or as 나으리 nauri by commoners outside of court as he has a position of authority. Also the princess’ Guard Ma is in the military and is addressed by his surname and title: Ma gun-kwan 마군관


The last of the three state exams was for professionals in the middle classes who studied practical subjects known as ‘miscellaneous’ subjects. Medicine was considered a ‘miscellaneous’ subject. The role of these professionals was to support the yangban in politics.


So the doctors are below the yangban in social status. They are addressed by their job titles. When Kwanghyun becomes a doctor at the hospital he is addressed by his surname and job title, Dr. Baek – 백의생님 Baek ui-seng-nim. Later he is promoted to 백의관 Baek ui-gwan. But first when he is a horse vet he is called simply ‘Horse Doctor’ 마의 (ma-ui) -this job was looked down on  and done by lower classes and so there is no honorific suffix of 님 (nim) at the end of his title. His older friends Kibae and Jabong call him by his name with the informal (panmal) participle ending –Kwanghyun-ah


Ways to address other non-noblemen

Older men may be addressed politely as 어르신 o-ru-shin (no Chinese characters) This  title was related to age not rank and it is sometimes used today instead of the term grandfather haraboji 할아버지 to address old men (who are not family members).

Kibae is sometimes addressed as o-ru-shin but not by Kwanghyun or people close to him. Jabong calls him 형님 hyongnim – older brother – the polite way for a man to address another man who is older.

Dr Saam is also addressed as o-ru-shin by the younger doctors as he’s not actually employed as a doctor at court.


The lowest of the low

Fellow/chap  이놈 i-nom (No hanja) is used to address (usually) low class men when the speaker is not pleased. As in hey you! = i-nom! Or ‘you dirty scoundrel!’ 😉

Kwanghyun is often called a nom by others who think he has ideas above his station or when he is arrested for doing something ‘bad’.

This term is still used today – but it’s not polite!





15 thoughts on “Titles and ways to address others in Joseon society: Horse Doctor

  • May 2, 2013 at 11:42 am

    Awesome post!! You make learning more about Korean language and history so simple and easy to understand 😀

    • May 3, 2013 at 8:07 pm

      Thanks! It took a while to write this post but it’s been really helpful to me too – names and titles are a nightmare in Korean!

  • March 4, 2014 at 10:45 am

    what is the difference between “paeha” and “jeonha” ?

  • August 11, 2014 at 3:23 pm

    This was really helpful. Thank you!

  • December 5, 2014 at 12:17 am

    Great post! I was really curious about the writing of some names. Just discovered that isn’t Chona but Jeon-a :)
    One name that is missing is how women were called on that period. I can’t find anywhere. Anybody knows? It is very similar to the word namja, but yet this is the word that means man. I am really confused. Here is a part on the drama The Night Watchman’s Journal. Jung Il Woo calls the girl that way (min. 27:26).

  • June 21, 2015 at 11:52 am

    Hey! I just discovered this entry and found it so insightful. Do you know how they were addressed in conversations? For example, in English, if I were referring to a married woman named Sarah Walters, I’d say, “I heard that Mrs. Walters…” So what would be the equivalent of “Mrs.”? Maybe ‘madam’?

    I’m guessing for noblewomen, they called “Lady [surname]”..


    This just came to mind as I was reading this haha.

    • June 28, 2015 at 11:45 pm

      It is always by their rank. Peasants are the lowest. Followed by Nobles and Royals (Highest) Also depends on their position which sometimes affect their ranks. In the drama Jewel in the palace, during junior palace maid training, they will be taught their ranks.

  • July 26, 2015 at 9:27 am

    Can I Ask something of this sort? In Arang and the Magistrate. She called him Sato? Can you tell me about that work…cuz Google Translate said otherwise.

    • July 26, 2015 at 9:28 am

      Word* sorry Typo~

    • September 14, 2015 at 2:15 pm

      sato ( 사또) means ‘magistrate’ in Korean

  • August 16, 2015 at 5:32 pm

    Have you seen Dae Jang Geum? If you have, which is better between it and Horse Doctor, in your opinion?

    • September 14, 2015 at 2:52 pm

      Well, I’ve seen 6 of Director Lee Byong Hoon’s big sageuks – Heojun, Dae Jang Geum, Sangdo, Horse Doctor, Dong Yi, and I’m watching Yi San at the moment. Heo Jun is still my favourite of his dramas. It’s more serious and more intense than some of the others. I like the fact that Heojun isn’t perfect – he has character flaws which made his character more attractive to me.

      Between Dae Jang Geum and Horse Doctor I preferred Dae Jang Geum. I thought it was addictive, the female villains were great, the theme music was catchy and the extra elements of Royal food really added something to the drama.

      I enjoyed Horse Doctor but I found it quite a light drama. (except for the blood and sickness of course!) And I couldn’t help but compare it to Heojun since they are both medical sageuks.

  • February 22, 2016 at 1:20 am

    Hello, do you know the definition of “Su-nim” and “Su su-nim” (I dont know If i wrote it right…) in the Joseon Dynasnty? Wiki tells, its the title of the monks. But in the Drama there were Teacher called Su-nim. So whats the right definition?

  • March 5, 2016 at 8:26 am

    It is wonderful to have this spelled out for me. Thanks I wish you would have written about what you would call a prince. Gotta keep looking.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: