Updated: May 20, 2020
You will have heard the term “Oppa“ or “Nuna” while listening to kpop, like in Super Junior’s Donghae & Eunhyuk‘s 2011 song Oppa Oppa, maybe SHINee’s 누난 너무 (Nuna is So Pretty aka Replay), or at least in Psy’s 2013 Oppa Gangnam Style, which has 3.5 billion views on YouTube.
Or perhaps it was from legions of girls screaming Oppa! to try and get the attention of their favorite K-star.
Maybe you noticed Oppa (오빠), Hyeong (형), Nuna (누나), Eonni (언니) as you were watching a Kdrama and wondered why what they said sounded nothing like the name that was written in the subtitles.
These terms all basically mean older sibling but are not limited to actual siblings but to friends you are close too. Which one you use however depends on gender (yours and theirs), closeness, and age. Once you are close, and if you have received permission from the older friend or individual to use less formal language (speak casually or talk down), you can use the term that shows the relationship between you.
If you are male you would use “hyeong” (형) for an older male friend and ”nuna” (누나) for older female friend.
If you are female you use “oppa“ (오빠) for an older male friend and eonni (언니) for older female friend.
(note: A younger friend can be called dongsaeng (동생) by either gender.)
However that’s not all, as it wouldn’t really fit the Kpop oppa model or kdrama nuna romance.
The most noticeable use of Oppa (오빠), in Kpop and Kdramas especially, is where it is used for someone they like. It is a commonly used by women (regardless of age) to refer to their romantic interest, boyfriend, and sometimes even husband. In this clip from the Hong Kong movie Bounty Hunters Lee Minho’s character wants the girl he likes to call him oppa but gets a surprise in the end as things are lost in translation.
In the world of K-dramas, “nuna romances” are a very popular genre. These are where the male lead is younger than, but has feelings for, the female lead. For example, to name a few: Encounter with Park BoGum, Witch’s Romance with Park Seo Joon, King of High School with Seo In Guk, Sweet Stranger and Me with Kim Young Kwang, Something in the Rain and One Spring Night with Jung Hae In, had all of them falling for “Nunas“.
Some stars like the idea of being an Oppa and even encourage older women to call them it, others break out in a cold sweat at even the idea of talking casually. We see this in an interview with Park BoGum on KBS’s Entertainment Weekly back in 2016.
Other times you might hear it is in a restaurant (usually a more casual one) being used when interacting with the waitstaff, like asking the eonni or nuna for more rice.
Whenever you are referring to someone you use always use an ending one of these terms with to someone else you attach the term to their name, for example Park HyungSik says “Park SeoJoonHyung” or ”SeoJoon Hyung” when speaking about his close friend to others.
While there’s no hard rule about foreigners using these terms. You may still get some raised eyebrows or giggles depending on how they are used though. However, if you are Jackie Chan you can call anybody whatever you want. Here he explains in this episode of Happy Together why he chooses to call Super Junior’s Choi Siwon (with whom he acted with in a movie) Oppa, even though, having lived and worked in Korea he knows what is normally used.