“Aigo” (아이고) is one of the most common Korean utterances you’ll hear, and likely already use, throughout your stay in Korea. Used to express a variety of sentiments ranging from distress to delight and everything in between, the meaning of “aigo” can easily be picked up by its vocal delivery. Be it expressed in high or low-pitched tones, a quick or lengthened pace, or a hushed or exaggerated cadence, one can immediately recognize the positive, negative, or neutral context of the nuanced “aigo.” “Aigo, I still don’t understand,” you might lament. Fret not as we learn more about 7 sentiments you can express using “aigo” 아이고 below.
English equivalents: WTH, OMG, I didn’t expect that, unbelievable, what on earth, oh dear
Much in the way one automatically says, “OMG!” when surprised, “Aigo” is also an impromptu and rapid remark made when caught off guard. Also used when one makes a minor and unintentional mistake, possibly from a lapse of noonchi 눈치, “aigo” is an appropriate reaction to one’s personal gaffe or social faux pas.
Being startled by a sudden noise or jolt, being surprised by a friend who creeps up on you, accidentally stepping on the back of someone’s shoe, immediately realizing you missed the bus, realizing you’ve been calling your friend’s girlfriend, Minji the name of his ex, Yuna.
English equivalents: There there..., you poor thing, sigh
In a lower pitch, draw out the “o” sound in “aigo” (아이고~~~) to express deep sympathy and/or that you emphasize with someone’s loss or difficult situation. Then, decide whether to listen quietly and patiently or follow up with gentle words of encouragement. In this context, “aigo” can be used to acknowledge various degrees of grief, and should be delivered to match the tone of the particular situation.
The loss of a loved one, a low score on an exam, failure to be admitted to a dream university or company, a breakup with a romantic partner, the loss of a valuable or sentimental item.
English equivalents: dang it, doggone it
Ever wish you could turn back time to right some wrongs of yesteryear? Aigo, don’t we all! When you’re still dwelling on significant or small errors made in the past and reflect on what you should’ve done, use “aigo” as a natural segue to your verbal pity party. The most natural way to express “aigo” in the context of remorse is to follow your breath pattern. If you’re exhausted and worn out by your regret, lengthen the speed. If you’re highly upset and agitated, quicken the pace. “Aigooo (festering regret), I wish I had studied more in university. Now I have this job with no room for advancement,” your friend woefully bemoans. You retort, “Aigo (frustration, point #4)! You’re only 27 years old! Get it together and take some online classes if you want to get ahead.”
Wishing you had (or hadn’t!) said that thing to your parent, ex-partner, boss, etc. Regretting a decision that changed the trajectory of your personal or professional life and relationships.
English equivalents: Oh brother, come on, wake up, geez, get it together
We’ve all had those moments when we want to throw up our hands in frustration and air out our grievances. Before expressing your irritation at or about the offending circumstance or person, preface your dissatisfaction with an equally terse “aigo” in an appropriate volume that matches your annoyance level. However, tread lightly and consider keeping complaints to yourself if you wish to avoid potential strife or incite greater tension.
Your co-teacher conveniently steps out of the classroom whenever the kids start acting up, the ajeossi 아저씨 or ajumma 아줌마 sitting next to you on the bus is unabashedly manspreading, KakaoPay isn’t processing your payment and now you’re just holding up the line, you forgot the code to your subway baggage locker and now you’re late to your next appointment.
English equivalent: Oh my poor (insert aching body part here)
Use “aigo” to declare to others or just to soothe yourself of your physical ailment. This includes all kinds of conditions, from a nasty migraine, achy back, and sore muscles to any activity requiring strenuous physical exertion. As for delivery, say “aigo” the same as you would when introducing your pain in English, often with a lengthened modulation and weakened voice: “Aigoooo...this headache is killing me!” 아이고…머리아파 죽겠어! You can also use “aigo” to express your general physical state of laziness, lethargy, and being unproductive.
When you experience any physical pain or stress, when you visit the gym after taking a month off and realize how strenuous your original routine has become, when you berate yourself for procrastinating because you just don’t feel like writing that thesis, even though you’ve zealously been playing computer games for the last 6 hours.
English equivalents: Wow! That’s wonderful! Awesome! Fantastic!
So far, we have looked at the many colorful uses of “aigo” in neutral to negative situations. Let’s explore two ways in which it can be used positively.
The first is the use of “aigo” to praise, compliment, and show heartfelt appreciation for someone or something. Your “aigo” will be expressed to match the tone of the words that follow. If your friend was finally promoted at work after 2 years of working late (야근) at the office and attending exhausting, weekly department dinners (회식), you can commend his perseverance and professional achievement with a low and earnest “Aigo, you really worked for it (you deserve this)” 아이고 수고/고생했어. If your coworker suddenly exclaims that she won 100,000원 in the daily lotto, you can spontaneously praise her good fortune in an excited pitch “Aigo! That’s great!” 아이고! 잘 됬네요!” Optionally, you can consider following up by insisting that she buy ice cream or sodas for your department!
Your friend was accepted into her first-pick university, your roommate won first place at her speech competition, your coworker was able to negotiate a higher salary for himself, your best friend proposed to his long-time partner and she accepted.
English equivalents: Oh! Aww, how cute, how adorable, oh my goodness!
Spontaneous squeals cannot be stopped in the presence of cuteness overload. Be it in response to babies, puppies, or simply adorable Korean stationery at the local Artbox, you’re inevitably bound to exclaim your delight and appreciation for an aesthetically pleasing person or object standing, sitting, or displayed before your elated eyes. In these moments, feel free to use an energetic, high-pitched tone as you gush your delight or express words of flattery.
You tell your coworker how adorable his baby daughter looks at her first birthday party, you praise how beautiful your friend looks in her wedding dress, you commend your gracious hosts for preparing a bountiful and delicious spread of banchan at the Korean dinner table.
How and when have you uttered “aigo” in your daily life in Korea? If you can relate to these 7 sentiments you can express using “aigo,” there is no doubt you are deeply familiar with and appreciate the many nuances of this popular expression. To that, we praise your understanding, “Aigo, how brilliant you are and how fast your noonchi is 눈치 빠르다!”