In this article:
- As new fans quickly find out, K-pop terms are numerous and can be confusing.
- Are you a hard stan or a soft stan? Who’s your favorite maknae? Don’t tell me you’re a sasaeng! If those sentences don’t make much sense to you just yet, then read on.
- Once you’re hooked by a catchy tune or a great dance move, it’s easy to find yourself caught up in a Korean cultural wave that includes music, dances, visuals and, crucially, its own vocabulary words.
- So, let’s take a dive into K-pop terms, including those about idol groups, music and awards, performances, fandom, and Korean culture in general.
If you’ve fallen in love with that catchy BTS or BLACKPINK track on the radio and decided to dip your toes into K-pop, you’ll soon find that there’s so much more to the genre than the music itself.
In fact, BTS’s Suga (Min Yoongi) points out that the word “genre” doesn’t quite capture what K-pop is.
For him, it includes, “not just the music, but the clothes, the makeup, the choreography…all of these elements amalgamate together in a visual and auditory content package.” This, he thinks, sets K-pop apart from other genres and makes it more like “integrated content.”
That’s why when you’re starting out, it’s hard to dip just your toes into K-pop.
Before you know it, you’re chest-deep in the catchy songs, their choreographies, characters, and lore. You might’ve even started a stan account and looked for moots — mutuals for us geriatrics — in the same fandom.
And in these online fan spaces, there’s even more to take in, mostly in the form of new words. After all, K-pop terms are a mixture of both Korean and English, and is, in a way, its own language.
So if you are new to the world of K-pop, first of all, here’s a warm welcome to you. And second, below is a quick guide to K-pop terms to help you get settled.
K-Pop Terms: The Basics
K-pop is, as Suga highlights, more than just a genre, and it serves as a catch-all term for Korean pop music. It’s pretty diverse, and is influenced by hip-hop, EDM, jazz, and rock, often performed by groups of idols (see below), though there are solo acts performing K-pop music, too.
This term refers to the spread of South Korean entertainment and culture first to Asia, and then, more recently, to the rest of the world. K-pop, alongside Korean television dramas and films, have transformed South Korea from a war-torn country to leading global tastemaker, and its investment in culture has had a positive effect on its economy.
In fact, BTS, the world’s top K-pop group, contributes a staggering $5 million to the South Korean GDP.
This is a term used to refer to a K-pop star, or a person who trains and debuts either as a soloist or as part of a K-pop group.
Before they debut (see below), an idol is first a trainee at an entertainment agency.
The training process can last anywhere from just a few months — as in the case of EXO’s Baekhyun or Super Junior’s Kyuhyun — or a few years.
For example, G-Dragon was a trainee for 11 years before he debuted as part of BIGBANG, while Seulgi trained for seven years before becoming Red Velvet’s main dancer and lead vocalist and, more recently, a member of the supergroup Girls on Top.
Idol training involves dancing and vocal lessons, as well as Korean language lessons in the case of foreigners training to be idols, as in the case of BLACKPINK’s Lisa. Many are also taught English in Japanese.
Aside from these, trainees also take classes in modeling, etiquette, and how to act in public. So if you get the feeling that your favorite idol is too perfect to be real, all this training is why.
In K-pop, “debut” refers to their transition from trainee to idol, usually marked by their first single or stage performance. Some trainees never debut, though.
K-Pop Terms About Idol Groups
Many K-pop idols debut and perform in musical bands known as idol groups. There are many K-pop slang terms used to describe the status and anatomy of these groups.
Meaning “who” in Korean, “nugu” or “nugu group” is used to refer to brand-new K-pop groups and those that haven’t had a lot of success yet. It’s often used by fans to insult other groups they don’t like, though, implying that despite all the idols’ training, they’re still nobodies.
A more neutral term than nugu, “rookie” or “rookie groups” are used to describe idols that have just debuted. There’s no real timeframe for when an idol or group stops being a rookie. It can be when they release their second album, or when they hit the two-year mark since their debut.
There are also groups that are affectionately called “monster rookies.” These are rookie groups that achieve a remarkable level of success very early on after — or even during! — their debut. Some monster rookies include ITZY and TXT.
Idol groups can be as small as three members (like 3YE and M.O.N.T), or as big as 23 (yep, and that crowded group is known as NCT). For larger idol groups, it’s not uncommon to have smaller groups that regularly perform together, and these are known as sub-units.
The aforementioned NCT, for example, has a 10-member sub-unit called NCT-127. Other examples include EXO-CBX, Girls’ Generation-TTS, and WJSN The Black.
Sub-units have separate releases from the main idol group and tend to have a strikingly different musical concept. This allows members to showcase their talents and experiment a bit more with music that they might not be able to make as part of a larger group.
Within idol groups, individual stars who share certain traits can be grouped together and called a “line.” This is different from a sub-unit, as they’re not necessarily making and releasing separate music as a smaller group.
Instead, lines can just be a way to describe certain roles. BTS’s rap line includes RM, J-Hope, and Suga, while their vocal line is composed of Jin, V, Jungkook, and Jimin.
Lines can also refer to members who were born in a certain year (as in ATEEZ’s ‘99 line) or come from the same country (as in TWICE’s Japanese line).
Lines are a different concept than line distribution, which refers to how much of a song is performed by a member in a K-pop group.
Each member of a K-pop idol group has a certain position or function. These roles are unofficial, and can sometimes even overlap.
- Leader: Often the oldest member (but not always), the leader is the spokesperson of the group and is in charge of liaising between the group itself and their agency. Examples of group leaders include BTS’s RM and 2NE1’s CL (that is, before she left to be a solo rapper)
- Main [role]: This title is given to the member who has the best vocal, rapping, or dancing skill of a group. For example, Rosé is the Main Vocal of BLACKPINK, while Lisa is the Main Dancer.
- Lead [role]: LIke main, this term is used for the second best of a skill within the group. For example, while Jennie is a Main Rapper for BLACKPINK, she also serves as a Lead Vocal (behind Rosé).
- Visual: The concept of a “visual” is odd since all K-pop idols are attractive, but each group has a visual that they consider the most attractive of them all based on Korean beauty standards. Some examples are BLACKPINK’s Jisoo, Red Velvet’s Irene, and BTS’s Jin.
- Center: A K-pop group’s center is the idol that receives the most publicity from their agency, and is often literally placed at the center of the choreography during performances.
They also tend to have the most lines in a song and screen time in music videos. Though the center can also sometimes be the visual, the main difference is that the visual tends to stay the same.
A center, meanwhile, can change depending on the album or promotions. Some examples are BTS’s Jungkook, Red Velvet’s Irene, and EXO’s Kai.
- Maknae: Meaning “youngest sibling” in Korean, this term refers to the youngest of the group, who is considered the baby of the family.
Fans also often add descriptors before this term to describe their idols. BTS’s Jungkook, for instance, is often referred to as a “golden maknae” because of his outstanding talent, while TWICE’s Tzuyu has been called an “evil maknae” for her sassy comebacks.
If we’re looking to combine some K-pop vocabulary words, there is also a maknae line, which refers to the younger half of the group, for some groups.
K-Pop Terms About Music and Awards
For those who aren’t K-pop fans, “comeback” often means an artist’s new album or song after a long break. But in K-pop terms, comebacks simply refer to a group’s new song or album release.
A single group, then, can have a comeback two or three times a year, with each song — and its accompanying concept, looks, and dances — being teased online for weeks before the premiere.
This would be the K-pop version of an EP. Because comebacks tend to happen very often for idols, their albums tend to be on the shorter side.
Usually, an idol group will release two or three mini-albums a year, and then come out with a full-length compilation album that may also include unreleased songs.
An All-Kill is when a song tops all major Korean music charts at the same time. These charts include:
This word means “grand prize” in Korean. It usually means that a group has the most digital and physical sales in a year, and is therefore considered a K-pop artist’s biggest achievement.
Daesang awards, like Album of the Year and Song of the Year, are usually awarded at two ceremonies: the Golden Disk Awards and the Seoul Music Awards.
K-Pop Terms About Media and Stage Performances
At concerts, a ment is when members of the performing group introduce themselves. They also take this time to personally speak to fans and give speeches.
This is a part of a song, performance, or dance that is thought to be the best part, or the most dramatic part.
A point dance is the most prominent dance move in a song’s choreography, and tends to be repeated within a song. Considered a “signature dance move,” these also tend to be less complicated bits of choreography so that idols can teach them to fans and non-dancers when promoting new music.
Some point moves have become iconic, like Super Junior’s Sorry Sorry handrub and Gangnam Style’s horse-riding move.
In the K-pop world, there are many music shows, where K-pop idols perform their songs for the public and compete against each other.
Here, groups often perform new releases and the most popular performance is voted on by fans and audiences. A group’s first win at one of these shows is a career landmark.
Some of the biggest music shows include Inkigayo, Music Core, M! Countdown, Show Champion, and Music Bank.
Weekly Idol is a variety show that new fans might hear a lot about online. In it, K-pop idols play different games and challenges that let us get to know more about them outside of their performances.
These shows are music reality shows where aspiring idols compete for a chance to debut in an idol group. Groups that emerge out of these survival shows, like TWICE, MOMOLAND, and IZ*ONE, tend to debut with the added advantage of already being in the public eye because of the shows.
- VLive: Though not exclusive to K-pop, VLive is a live streaming platform used by many idols to connect with their fans and post behind-the-scenes content. V Live sessions don’t have to be too elaborate, as some idols use the platform when they’re bored.
- DearU Bubble: This is a subscription-based platform that lets fans talk to idols. They don’t tend to advertise much, since the idols you could subscribe to are walking advertisements.
- Weibo: One of the biggest social media platforms in China, where usual platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are blocked, Weibo is a platform that the K-pop industry uses to reach out to Chinese fans.
K-Pop Terms About Fandom
One of the first words new K-pop fans learn, “bias” refers to your favorite member of a group, though the experience of having a bias can differ from person to person.
You can be specifically attached to this idol or be romantically attracted to them, or you may even see yourself in them. Whatever it is, it’s common to find that you don’t choose your bias — your bias chooses you.
Sometimes, you can also have an ultimate bias (often shortened to “ult bias”), which refers to your favorite idol among all K-pop idol groups.
A bias wrecker is an idol that makes a fan rethink their choice of bias within the same K-pop group, and has a chance of replacing your current bias.
Types of Fans
- Multi and Solo: These terms are used to describe individuals based on how many idols and idol groups they are a fan of.
Some prefer to dedicate their time solely to one group, which makes them solo fans, while others are multi-fandom. Some solo stans also consider themselves fans of just one member of a group, which some fans might frown upon.
- Hard and Soft Stans: Hard stans tend to be more thirsty on social media, often commenting on their idol’s sexual appeal. In contrast, soft stans tend to be more protective over their favorite idols.
- Sasaeng (사생): This is the type of fan you don’t want to be, as it’s a term that describes fans who are stalkers.
Many sasaengs have been reported to break into idol’s homes and make them feel uncomfortable and unsafe. It’s gotten so bad that some agencies have also released statements about idols’ fear of sasaengs.
For instance, BigHit, the company behind BTS and TXT, released a list of blacklisted sasaengs in 2019.
- Anti-Fan: Another unsavory actor in the K-pop world, an anti-fan (or “anti”) is a hater that spends their time mocking idol groups they don’t like or even creating fake rumors designed to discredit them.
Some anti-fandoms have grown so big they have names, like TWICE’s “Thrice” (in contrast to the actual fanbase, called “Once”).
- Fan Chant: Fans in the audiences of K-pop performances shout specific chants to support their group. Most are made of all the members’ names, chanted during the intro part of songs, or specific words or lines that mean something special to the group.
- Lightstick: This is a type of flashlight that’s custom-designed for idol groups, and is brought to live performances as a sign of devotion. When members of an audience all light up their lightsticks, it creates what’s known as a lightstick ocean.
- Photocard: Cards with a K-pop idol’s photo on them often come with physical K-pop albums. These are packaged at random, so dedicated fans sometimes buy multiple copies of an album to collect photocards with their bias on it. In an effort to collect the photocards they want, fans have also created an entire barter system.
- Selca (셀카): This is the Korean term for selfie. Some fans also host a selca day, which is when they upload their own selfies alongside their idol’s selfie.
K-Pop Terms About Korean Culture
Because hallyu is the organized export of Korean culture, K-pop fans also get to learn a lot about Korean culture in general the more they listen to and follow their favorite idols.
Like other Asian languages, Korean has special words that allow one to pay respect for older people or those who are of higher status. Some words you might encounter are:
- Hyung (형): Older brother;
- Noona (누나): Older sister, when the speaker is a man;
- Unnie (언니): Older sister, when the speaker is a woman;
- Sunbae (선배): A senior, or someone who has been in the industry or in training for longer than the speaker;
- Hubae (후배): A junior.
These terms can be used even when you’re not related. For example, BTS’s Jungkook calls RM, who is three years older, “RapMon Hyung,” while TWICE’s Tzuyu calls Nayeon “Nayeon Unnie.”
Hwaiting! (화이팅 / 파이팅)
Loosely derived from “fighting,” this word is used to shout encouragement the way English speakers might say “break a leg” or “you can do it!”
This term describes cuteness, often with regard to facial expressions or even a baby-like voice. Though it’s often associated with women — a common K-pop example, after all, is Sana from TWICE — men can do it, too.
A combination of the words “skin” and “relationship,” skinship is when idols show affection physically with each other. Dating bans among K-pop stars are pretty strict, so this is only appropriate among members of the same group, or between K-pop idols of the same gender.
K-pop has a rich history across four generations of idols, and it’s set to grow even more. Whether you’re on your way to mastering the K-pop terms above or still very new to the vocabulary, there’s definitely room for everyone — except maybe if you’re a sasaeng.