Japan from the inside out

From golddigger to gold miss in South Korea

Posted by ampontan on Friday, May 30, 2008

THE PHRASE wasei eigo refers to a word or words that look and sound as if they might be English, but were in fact created by the Japanese. Baseball is a natural inspiration for many of these words. One example is naitaa (nighter), which is what the Japanese call a night game.

Hello, the Gold Miss speaking

Another is “old miss”, a phrase coined some years ago to describe what native English speakers referred to as an old maid when people still used that term to describe something other than a card game.

In yet another link in the fascinating chain of one culture borrowing from another culture that which was borrowed from yet another culture, the South Koreans seem to have appropriated the Japanese wasei eigo expression “old miss” to create a new expression that describes an entirely different phenomenon: “gold miss”.

As a recent Japanese-language article by the Seoul correspondent of the Nishinippon Shimbun explains, the Korean Employment Information Service (KEIS) defines the term as that group of single women aged 30-45 who are college graduates with annual incomes of at least 40 million won (US$ 38,700). Unlike the old maid/miss, a fate that most women dreaded, the Korean gold miss has become an object of envy for her freedom to lead a carefree life unencumbered by financial or family concerns.

In fact, the article uses the gold miss phenomenon as the point of entry for a brief exposition of the changes that have taken place in Korean society over the last generation, primarily for women and family life.

The correspondent interviewed a 31-year-old woman who said that as recently as the 80s, the traditional roles of breadwinner for men and housewife for women were still the standard in South Korea. Now, she claims, it is difficult for a woman to get married unless she has a job.

By the time of the Seoul Olympics in 1988, the country’s GNP had risen to 10th worldwide, but the purchase of an apartment in a condo in that city was so expensive that both the husband and the wife had to work to afford it. Spurring the entry of women into the workplace was a law passed in 1987 that required equality in employment opportunities.

Who are the Gold Misses?

KEIS reports that in 2001, about 2,100 South Korean women were in the gold miss category and employed in seven occupational sectors, such as chef, doctor, and designer. By 2006, KEIS had expanded the range to include 36 sectors, among them teachers and writers. The number of gold miss women then totaled more than 27,000—a nearly 12-fold increase in only five years.

The author also describes two other types among contemporary Korean women—the alpha girls and the Ω girls (omega girls). The former take their name from the book by Dan Kindlon, who describes them as “the girl who is destined to be a leader. She is talented, highly-motivated, and self-confident”.

With characteristic cultural myopia, the book is subtitled, “Understanding the New American Girl and How She is Changing the World”. There were plenty of Japanese alpha girls before Kindlon claimed the type as an American pioneer. But with a previous bestseller about boys called Raising Cain, perhaps the author felt compelled for a quick follow up, causing him to skimp on the research that would have revealed the rest of the world was there already.

Now the Koreans have come up with a new twist on the alpha girl. At the end of April, the Chosun Ilbo published an article defining the omega girls as those alpha girls too incompetent to manage the affairs of daily life and unable to find mates. The Chosun article included interviews with mothers, one of whom described a doctor daughter who didn’t know how to pay the electric bill or her taxes. Another mother was anxious about her college professor daughter who “couldn’t even find a divorced man to marry.”

The Chosun piece also suggested that omega girls were a flop with men because they were perfectionists. It advanced the theory that men feel threatened by the omegas — isn’t this starting to sound like a college sorority version of an all-night bull session? — because they believe logic is required to appeal to the new breed of woman. For the omega girls, maturity rather than financial security has become the standard for choosing a mate, making it likely they would be susceptible to having affairs with older men.

Students of evolutionary biology, however, will know they’ve ventured onto shaky ground here in more ways than one. For starters, all women are susceptible to having affairs with older men, and both maturity and financial security are among the reasons. For another, logic is never required to appeal to women. No wonder they’re not getting married.

The Chosun also presented the idea that some of the alpha/omega types do not like the idea of having a relationship with men who would arouse their sense of competition, so they wind up marrying unemployed men. A more detailed explanation of the dynamics of those relationships would undoubtedly make juicy reading.

More Precious Metals

There’s more, but it gets increasingly difficult to separate the froth from the substance. Some people see a category they call “platinum miss”, which is similar to the gold miss but has a stable job at a mid-tier or large company and assets of at least 80 million won. Then there is the “silver miss”, the unmarried woman of the same age with an annual salary of at least 30 million won.

Here’s an earlier English-language article from the Chosun with additional information.

Try this passage:

Women like these are entitled to VIP “gold” credit cards, so they’re called “gold misses” — a term, created from the broken English “old miss,” that made it onto a list of fad words of 2006.

It’s a shame they can’t bring themselves to explain that the origin of “old miss” is Japanese. With the popularity of the Korean TV show “Old Miss Diary” in 2005 and a movie spinoff in 2006, perhaps their emotional stake in the phrase is too high to say it out loud in front of a Korean audience.

Believe it or not, there’s even more. As this article from the JoongAng Daily explains, Koreans have also created the terms King Kong Girl and doenjang nyeo (soybean paste girl). This is getting to be more complicated than all the words Koreans need to describe family relationships.

Doenjang is a dish in traditional Korean cuisine, but to call someone a bean paste girl means she is the familiar type of airhead known around the world for her interest in clothes, brand names, and coaxing money out of her parents and the men in her life. There must be a tasty explanation of the connection between bean paste and brainless golddiggers, but I couldn’t find it.

The King Kong girl is named after the King Kong theory of French novelist and filmmaker Virginie Despentes. Here one describes her moment of epiphany:

“I suddenly felt tired of playing the roles required of me when meeting men, of being innocent yet not a prude, the femme fatale, naturally thin with no obsessions about dieting, independent but vulnerable, seductive but not slutty.”

In other words, the King Kongettes have voluntarily withdrawn from competing in the sexual marketplace, perhaps to lead the life of a gold miss.

And doesn’t that put it all together? Leave it to the journalists to explain social trends with cute artificial phrases that will have evaporated in a few years’ time. What we’re seeing with all these gold/silver/platinum/bronze/tin misses and the King Kong/Bean Paste girls is the Korean manifestation of one of the forces responsible for the low birth rates in the advanced industrial countries.

As one of the Chosun articles explains, even the alpha girls that get married and have children will dragoon the grandparents into performing the parental chores while they pursue a career. Now isn’t that ironic? Some women wanted the opportunity to have a career, and where did they wind up? In an extended family that essentially functions in the same way their grandparents’ family did. The only difference is that the woman wears a fashionable outfit to go to work downtown in an IT-festooned office, rather than work clothes to go outdoors and toil in the fields.

To put it in brief: A lot of women just can’t be bothered anymore to go to all the trouble to have children and raise families.

Some governments think that providing financial incentives will bring the birthrates back up. They’re mistaken, of course, but that won’t stop them from wasting everyone’s money in the process.

People can’t be bribed to do what they don’t want to do to begin with—particularly when it doing it in good conscience requires one’s undivided attention for 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for a minimum of 20 years. If they yearn for companionship, it’s easier to buy a dog.


Here’s a two-minute video with a salsa soundtrack showing a young blonde woman describing in English her lunch with two doenjang dishes. (Northeast Asia is just full of surprises!) Was she cast to type? It seems as if she too has a bit of the soybean paste girl in her.

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6 Responses to “From golddigger to gold miss in South Korea”

  1. […] Asia the more educated and successful a woman is, the more likely is she to marry late/never marry. ‘Golden misses’ they call such single women in south […]

  2. […] Daily says an income of 40 million won or above is required), which you can read about in depth in this discussion of the Japanese origins of the term at Ampontan: Japan from the inside […]

  3. […] profession, and her subsequent material wealth. The Korean Employment Information Service (KEIS) defines a “gold miss” as a single woman between 30-45 years old with annual incomes of at least […]

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