How did people address each other in the Joseon period? 10 must-know titles in sageuk drama

I’ve been watching the historical drama The Flower in Prison (MBC) and loving it. (review coming soon) So I started thinking again about how the characters address each other and how confusing this is  since hardly anyone is simply called by their NAME! The relationship to the speaker, rank, age, profession, and gender can all play a part. 😕

I’ve written before about how people address each other in specific Joseon sageuk ( Dong Yi and Horse Doctor) but here are (what I think are) the top 10 must-know titles to listen out for when watching Korean historical drama. Do you agree?

tae won

JEON-HA (전하 殿下) ‘Your Majesty’

This is how to address the king.
Everyone is lower than the king except the queen mother who addresses him as chu-sang (주상 主上)

Ji Jin Hee as King Sukjong

Ji Jin Hee as King Sukjong in Dong Yi (MBC 2010) 


MA-MA 마마 ‘My Lady’

Female members of the royal family and noble ladies are often addressed as ‘ma-ma-nim‘ ‘my lady’. Princesses can be addressed by their full title kong-ju ma-ma공주마마 (公主 媽媽 ) or simply ma-ma 마마. The king, queen, and the queen mother just call her 공주 kong-juaggashi / ashi 아가씨 is another polite way to address a young unmarried lady.

DE-BI-MA-MA대비마마 大妃媽媽

The queen mother is addressed as de-bi-ma-ma.
But her children and the queen address her as o-ma-ma-ma 어마마마

JUNG-JON-MA-MA 중전마마 中殿媽媽

The queen is addressed as jung-jon-ma-ma.
The king and the queen mother just call her jung-jon.

Queen Munjeong

Kim Mi Sook as the controlling Queen Munjeong de-bi-ma-ma in The Flower in the Palace (MBC 2016)


SANG-GUNG ‘court lady’ 상궁 尙宮

Court ladies (below concubine status – read about the court lady ranking system here) are addressed by their surname plus the title sang-gung.

Women of high status don’t work. So women with jobs are from the lower classes. Women in professions are addressed by their job plus the polite title ‘nim.‘ But women in low level servant jobs  – like damos –  are just addressed by their first names!

sung un sang gung

Dong Yi becomes a ‘special court lady’ (Dong Yi, MBC 2010) 


NA-U-RI 나으리 ‘Sir’

na-u-ri is a polite way to address noblemen and middle ranking men who often tend to wear blue uniforms if they work at court.

When the king goes into the city in disguise at night dressed as a ‘regular nobleman’ everyone calls him na-u-ri. Working men are addressed by their surname plus their job title or just na-u-ri often by commoners who don’t know their names and titles.

flower in prison 17.2

King Myeongjong dressed as a ‘na-u-ri’ in The Flower in the Palace (MBC 2016)


YEONG-GAM 영감 令監 ‘My Lord’

yeong-gam is used to address high ranking officials (but not top rank). Heads of departments at court can be yeong-gams. The head eunuch is addressed as sang-seon yong-gam상선 영감 尙膳.

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 by younger people. And the meaning is changing – according to the Naver online dictionary today yong-gam just means ‘old man’ Oh! :(


DAE-GAM 대감 大監 ‘My Lord’
(but bigger lord than Yeong-gam :))

Daegams wear red uniforms and hold the number one rank positions in the government – like the prime minister. They are often the baddies in dramas set in the royal court as they have lots of power and of course they abuse it. boo. :(

flower in the prison ep9

a dae-gam going for a meeting at the palace


DO-RYEON-NIM 도련님 ‘young master’

This is used by servants to address young noblemen who are the sons of the servant’s employer.

flower in prison ep10.4

Tae Won is addressed as do-ryeon-nim by his mother’s servants when he visits her home. (The Flower in Prison MBC 2016) 


O-RA-BO-NI 오라버니 ‘older brother’

This is the honorific form of 오빠 o-ppa, used only by females to address an older brother or an older male friend. Men call older male friends hyeong-nim 형님.

Jang Hee Jae

In Dong Yi the villainess Jang Hee Bin gets a lot of help  with her dastardly plans from her older brother Jang Hee Jae.



Older men may be addressed politely as o-ru-shin.

This title was related to age not rank and it is still used today instead of the term grandfather haraboji 할아버지 to address older men (who are not family members and who look old but not really really old 😉 )

Tae Soo and Ok Nyo

Ok Nyeo the young prison warden addresses Tae Soo the prisoner as orushin (The Flower in Prison)


I-NOM 이 놈  ‘you dirty scoundrel!’ 😉

i-nom  is used to address (usually) someone in the lower class. It seems to be a useful expression that signifies that the speaker is not pleased. So instead of having to say, ‘how dare you speak to me like that. Who do you think you are?‘, the speaker can simply say, i-nom! (in a very aggravated tone) Someone may be called a nom when they behave rudely or commit a crime.

This term is still used today – but it’s not polite! (I don’t think I’ll try using it 😉 )

prisoners and damo

scene from a Joseon prison in The Flower in the Palace (MBC 2016) 


%d bloggers like this: