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Luck or curse? Korean ‘yeot’ taffy's contrasting symbolism

Sticky 'yeot' taffy loses popularity as common treat, yet its cultural significance persists, embodying both positive and negative connotations

By No Kyung-min

Published : April 16, 2024 - 14:50

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Fading into history are scenes of street vendors hawking the candy “yeot,” with rhythmic snips of blunt scissors.

Despite being cherished in Korea for centuries, particularly among commoners due to its accessibility, the taffy is no longer the most sought-after candy in the nation, as only a handful of businesses are still dedicated to the craft of making it.

For modern sweet enthusiasts, it has fallen out of favor, often perceived as too sticky and lacking the more delicate, soft textures of today's cakes and donuts.

The waning appeal of yeot as a sweet treat, however, bears little relation to its enduring symbolic significance, which takes precedence over its mere palatable pleasure.

There is, of course, one caveat: Its proper use demands careful parsing of contextual information.

A yeot-selling event is held at an E-mart store nine days before the national college entrance exam on Nov. 9, 2008. (Herald DB) A yeot-selling event is held at an E-mart store nine days before the national college entrance exam on Nov. 9, 2008. (Herald DB)

Sweet token of luck

Every November, during the state-administered college entrance exam, the Suneung, there is a surge in sales of sticky foods.

Sticky treats are commonly bought as gifts for test-takers, because the Korean word “butda” (to stick or cling to something) means to pass a test.

The most popular choice among them is yeot, renowned for its naturally strong stickiness. It is made with grain syrup, or jocheong in Korean, derived from strained barley malt simmered with cooked rice, which gives the taffy its sweetness.

Besides its stickiness being auspicious, it has been suggested that the glucose contained in yeot acts as fuel for the brain, aiding students in enhancing cognitive function and concentration during mental tasks such as exams.

Using yeot as a symbol of good fortune for "gwageo" -- comparable to today's civil service examinations -- test-takers dates back to at least the Joseon era (1392-1910).

In the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1863), there is a passage reprimanding a supervisor for not regulating yeot sellers at the exam site, which was meant to maintain a serious and quiet atmosphere.

The sweet treat also functioned as a lucky charm in traditional marriage customs.

Sticky yeot was sent as part of food offerings from the bride's side to the in-laws, symbolizing the hope for the bonds between the couple -- and between the bride and the in-law family -- to be as sticky as yeot.

Yeot is also said to have had a more practical -- and perhaps humorous -- purpose during the Joseon era: keeping the mother-in-law's mouth occupied with taffy, thereby preventing her supposedly from nagging the bride.

While the exact origin of yeot's introduction to Korea is not explicitly documented, it is believed to have arrived on the peninsula during the Goryeo era (918-1392), likely coming from neighboring China.

(Getty Images) (Getty Images)

Sticky curse

In stark contrast to its relation to good fortune, the act of consuming yeot can carry a negative undertone.

In this context, the phrase, "I ate yeot," symbolizes the speaker's feelings of frustration, akin to the English expression, “I'm screwed.” To feed someone this taffy, or to tell them to "go eat yeot," conveys a dismissive or offensive meaning, similar to "screw you.”

According to Kang Seo-hyun, a Seoul resident in his 30s, he often uses this yeot analogy to describe a situation where he is confronted with a daunting predicament.

"For me, yeot naturally comes to mind when I find myself mired in unfavorable circumstances," he said, adding that the word implies a sense of doom.

The phrase "to eat yeot" could be used as an insult and curse, occasionally accompanied by the gesture of raising one's middle finger, he said.

Kang also noted that among close friends, however, the word is often used in a playful manner. "I remember using this expression more frequently during my middle and high school years. As an adult, I rarely use it these days."

In an incident highlighting how yeot can be used to express discontent or insult, a man threw a bunch of yeot treats at the South Korean national soccer team as the members arrived at the airport, returning from the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. This act was meant to symbolize the man's dissatisfaction with the team's performance in the tournament.

In recent years, the mixed English-Korean phrase “big yeot” is often used to indicate being fooled on a large scale. Those who claim to have eaten “big yeot” are expressing frustration with their experiences of being tricked or embarrassed by others. Some go even further by adding the English word “giant” to amplify the negative connotation of yeot.

The National Institute of Korean Language confirmed that there is no official explanation as to how this candy came to embrace such negative meanings. However, there are several theories, although none of these have emerged as the dominant explanation.

One theory, discussed in a column in the Kyunghyang Shinmun in 1954, suggests that the negative connotation of yeot might be linked to its use as a means for the public to serve as witnesses to the purchase of a property during the Joseon era. During times of widespread illiteracy and the absence of written documentation, property buyers would distribute the taffy to local villagers as a way to confirm the validity of their purchase. Should the legitimacy of the purchase later fall into question, the villagers could attest to it by affirming their receipt of yeot. As a result, yeot began to be used as a means to refute false or unjust accusations.

Some speculate that the origin of the dismissive use of yeot lies in the phonetic similarity between yeot and the Korean word "yeom," which denotes the funerary process of washing and shrouding the deceased. This may have led to yeot getting imbued with an ill-wishing nuance, akin to wishing someone's demise, similar to the English phrase "Go to hell."

Another theory posits that during the patriarchal Joseon era, yeot was employed as derogatory sexual slang by male-only traveling theater troupes called "namsadangpae" in Korean. Metaphorically, "eat yeot" was intended to wish bad luck upon a man so as to have a romantic encounter with a woman who would manipulate him.

South Korean national soccer team players look at sticky yeot candy thrown by angry football fans at Incheon Airport after their return from the World Cup in Brazil, June 30, 2014. (Herald DB) South Korean national soccer team players look at sticky yeot candy thrown by angry football fans at Incheon Airport after their return from the World Cup in Brazil, June 30, 2014. (Herald DB)