Korean Metaphors - The Bowl

Korean Metaphors: The Bowl

In Miscellaneous by Lena

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This week, instead of analyzing punchlines, we will learn about a metaphor that is very commonly used in Korean hiphop lyrics.
Note: This post is a revised and extended remake of this old, tiny post.

Why a Bowl?

There is a simple cultural reason why Koreans use the word “bowl” as metaphor. You have surely seen a traditional Korean meal before; main dishes and many side dishes in separate bowls and plates that everyone eats out of, and one bowl for each eater that is filled with rice. In other words, the bowl is the equivalent of the Western plate. And this is a metaphor that you should be familiar with. It has been used in English hiphop lyrics before, for example by ScHoolboy Q in ‘Blessed (Feat. Kendrick Lamar)’ (“Man, I got so much shit up on my plate, dog”) or Eminem in ‘When the Music Stops (Feat. D-12)’:

There’s too much on my plateEminem

Of course, this idiom is not limited to lyrics. On its metaphorical level, it says that there is too much food on one’s plate that one cannot eat at once and will need time to eat. Actually, it expresses that someone has a lot of work to do or is busy. This is how the plate metaphor is used in English, the plate being like a desk that is loaded with tasks one has to accomplish. The Korean bowl metaphor has a different meaning and usage though.

Explanation & Usage

To be exact, the Korean bowl metaphor has two different usages, i.e. we have to differentiate between two different kinds of bowls: the ‘plain’ bowl, 그릇 (geureut), and the bowl of food/rice, 밥그릇 (bapgeureut).

The plain bowl

The plain bowl represents the person, it is used to describe someone’s natural capability. The bowl’s size and material stand for how much one can handle, be it physically or mentally. Therefore, this metaphor is often translated as “a person of poor/great caliber,” depending on the size. For example, comparing someone to a small bowl could be like saying that they are small-minded or petty, because, since their bowl is so small, tiny things look huge in it. Someone with a huge bowl on the other hand would easily overlook those trivial things.

The bowl of rice

This metaphor is not just about the bowl itself, but about the bowl and its content, be it nothing or a huge pile of food. The food stands for one’s livelihood, the money one earns. Thus, someone with a big bowl can earn a lot of money, or, on the metaphorical level, their bowl can be filled with a lot of food/rice. And, here again, the bowl’s material matters. Are you eating out of a golden or a wooden bowl? Furthermore, the ‘spoon’ is often used along with the bowl to describe who is eating out of whose bowl, you will find this in the examples below.

In hiphop lyrics

Rappers conventionally love to rap about money, brag about how much they are earning and compare themselves to others to illustrate how much more money than their competitors they are making. This is exactly where the bowl of rice metaphor comes in. The rice in the bowl stands for money, and having lots of rice in one’s bowl is like saying that one is earning a lot, i.e. that one is popular, one’s music is selling well, etc.


There is an endless number of idioms in the Korean language that use the word ‘bowl (of rice/food)’. These are actually irrelevant to our metaphors, but just so you know how useful the word is, here are a few ‘bowl’ idioms (note that the English idioms are only ‘similar’, they have a more or less slightly different nuance):

  • 남의 밥그릇은 높아 보이고 자기 밥그릇은 낮아 보인다
    namui bapgeureuseun nopa boigo jagi bapgeureuseun naja boinda
    Literally: Other people’s bowls look great and one’s own looks poor
    Similar to: The grass is always greener on the other side
    Meaning: What others have always looks better than what oneself has
  • 밥그릇 앞에서 굶어 죽을 사람/놈
    bapgeureut apeseo gulmeo jugeul saram/nom
    Literally: A person who starves to death in front of a bowl of food
    Meaning: Expresses that someone is extremely lazy, even too lazy to move and eat food
  • 귀한 그릇 쉬 깨진다
    gwihan geureut swi kkaejinda
    Literally: Precious bowls break easily
    Similar to: The higher you fly, the harder you fall
    Meaning: The better something is, the easier it comes to an end

Now, back to our metaphors. The following examples are taken right out of your favorite rappers’ lyrics and will surely help you understand the two bowl metaphors fully.


Crucial Star – 그릇 (Prod. Kimy Fiesta)

Example number one, the only example for the ‘plain’ bowl metaphor, comes from Crucial Star who has actually dedicated a whole song to the metaphor (or idiom in this case, as you like). Yes, the track’s title is ‘그릇’ (geureut, bowl) and it can be found on his ‘A Star From the Basement’ album. A great track, and its complete lyrics have been translated especially for this article, so do read and listen to this gem. If you understand why the title has been translated as ‘What It Takes’, then you have what it takes to understand the metaphor.
Here are the two lines in the lyrics that mention the bowl:

이 험난한 곳을 헤쳐나가기엔 내 그릇이 너무 작아.
i heomnanhan goseul hechyeonagagien nae geureusi neomu jaga.
Translation: I don’t have what it takes to struggle through this perilous place.
Literally: My bowl is to small for me to struggle through this perilous place.

그릇이 작음 억지로 구겨서라도 넣어
geureusi jageum eokjiro gugyeoseorado neoheo
Translation: Even though I don’t have what it takes, I force myself to obtain it
Literally: Although my bowl is small, I’ll crumple it (what it takes) and force it inside [my bowl]

G2 – 식구 (Family)

Huckleberry P exemplarily demonstrates the use of the bowl of rice metaphor with this line (note: the whole lyrics are about a family eating at the same table; read them here):

밥그릇의 크기, 혹은 수저를 쥐는 방법 모두 제멋대로지만
bapgeureusui keugi, hogeun sujeoreul jwineun bangbeop modu jemeotdaerojiman
Translation: The size of the rice bowl or how to hold the spoon, that’s all up to the individual
Meaning: Everyone can be themselves and do things in their own, individual way

The following line is abiding by the same metaphor, no mention of a bowl though:

넌 절대 우리 식탁에 숟가락 못 올려
neon jeoldae uri siktage sutgarak mot ollyeo
Translation: You will never be able to put your spoon on our table
Meaning: You don’t get a share from our earnings, you’ll never belong to our “family’

Verbal Jint – 90년대로부터 (From the Nineties)

On Erykah Badu’s ‘Soldier’, VJ raps:

And Q-Tip said, “Record company people are shady”
니 밥그릇에 숟가락 얹고 너의 내일이 그들에게 종속되기를 바라는 기생충들 꽤 많거든
ni bapgeureuse sutgarak eontgo neoui naeiri geudeurege jongsokdoegireul baraneun gisaengchungdeul kkwae mankeodeun
Translation: Because, see, there are quite a lot of parasites who want to eat off you and hope that your future depends on them
Literally: […] parasites who dig their spoon into your rice bowl […]

The track can be found on Verbal Jint’s mixtape ‘사수자리 Vol. 2: 과잉진화’.

Yubin – ALIVE (with Yezi)

Listen to the song here. These two ladies also used the metaphor quite gloriously, Yubin rapping:

누가 뭐라던 난 개처럼 밥그릇싸움에선 절대 안뺏겨
nuga mworadeon nan gaecheoreom bapgeureussaumeseon jeoldae anppaekyeo
Translation: No matter what anyone says, I won’t let them steal from me in the turf war like a dog
Literally: I won’t let them steal from me in the rice/food bowl fight ; or: in the fight for food
Meaning: She won’t let others get her “share” of the album sales.

Notice that she even went as far as to stack another metaphor on the bowl metaphor by mentioning the word ‘dog’; comparing the fight for album sales to the territorial fights of dogs to express how fierce of a fight for survival it is. Next, Yezi:

허니 그냥 구경하며 숟가락을 얹어 쪽쪽 꿀이라도 빨아대길
heoni geunyang gugyeonghamyeo sutgarageul eonjeo jjokjjok kkurirado pparadaegil
Translation: But they (other female rappers) just watch, hoping to freeload, like licking honey
Literally: […] hoping to put their spoon into my food […]
Meaning: “I do all the work and they want a free ride on my fame,” like someone stealing the busy bee’s honey.

The comparison to eating honey is just brilliant, don’t you think? Now, on to the last example!

Cjamm (SMTM3, Ep2)

This one is rather tricky and for true ‘bowl metaphor experts’. Take a look:

내 그릇이 작아? 너 설거지부터 하시지
nae geureusi jaga? neo seolgeojibuteo hasiji
Translation: [You say that] I’m a small caliber? You start by washing the dishes
Literally: [You say that] My bowl is small? You start by washing the dishes
Note: In Cjamm’s metaphor, there is potential to evolve; one starts by washing the dishes, then gets a small bowl that may turn into something bigger (very much ‘from dishwasher to millionaire’).
Meaning: Someone calling him a small caliber (bowl) obviously means that he was not famous at the time and did not earn a lot of money (a tiny bowl doesn’t hold much rice), which he indirectly admits to, reading between the lines. However, he then disses the opponent by saying that they don’t even have a bowl yet and are only “washing” other people’s bowls. This again most likely means: “You’re a complete nobody who’s kissing other, greater (or: more famous) people’s asses.”

As the bowl is quite a powerful and useful metaphor, you will surely come across it again. Remember that just the other day, we discussed Tablo’s verses in Yankie’s ‘Sold Out’ where he raps: “A fatal hunger | Where’s the rival to share the pile with?” Although he didn’t mention it, Tablo does have a lot on his plate, I mean, in his bowl.

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