These four words basically means 'beautiful', 'lovely', 'pretty', according to Naver Online Dictionary: 아름답다, 예쁘다, and 곱다.

From my own experience, it seems to me that 예쁘다 and 이쁘다 have the same meaning, maybe 이쁘다 being used more by younger people and could be more informal. I cannot remember hearing 곱다 and just saw it in a vocabulary list online (this prompted the question actually). When 예쁘다 is used for a man, it seems to me that it implies some androgynous beauty, as in the concept of 'flower boy'.

What are the differences between them?

Intensity? Politeness/formality? Do they apply to people or to objects? To both genders (as 'pretty' cannot be applied to a boy, except to imply he is not manly/he has some delicate features usually associated to women)?.

If there are other words that relate to beauty, feel free to add them to an answer.


3 Answers 3


I do not have anything formal on these, however I will comment on my personal observations. Because these words are all close synonyms, I do not feel there is a substantive difference in their meanings. Thus their difference comes down more to feeling and soft differences. It is a bit like trying to explain the differences between "gigantic," "ginormous," and "humongous."

This is not necessarily meant to be a full and robust answer, but my thoughts are too long for a comment.

Let me first address 곱다. I feel that this word is less commonly used to express physical beauty than the other three words. It connotes a feeling of softness, of genuine internal benevolence. One common translation I have seen is "fair," as in "a fair virgin." It captures not just a feeling of physical attractiveness, but moreover a sense of beneficence. 곱다 is more commonly applied to beauty of overall character, and possesses a literary feel.

Now for the other three words. These form a rather close synonym group. I honestly believe that there is not going to be a "right" answer to the differences in their meanings. Different people will use them differently.

아름답다 feels a little more formal than 예쁘다 and 이쁘다. The gap in formality is small though. Just in my experience, 아름답다 is a word less used by children than 예쁘다/이쁘다. (But this is not a hard and fast rule of course. I do not have any percentages of use between the two). 아름답다 at times carries a feeling of more distance between the thing being called beautiful.

One instance where 아름답다 feels more appropriate than 예쁘다/이쁘다 would be something like talking of Queen Elizabeth II of England.

엘리자베스 여왕은 너무 아름답다. Queen Elizabeth is very beautiful.

Most of us do not see 80-year old women as the paragon of physical and sensuous beauty. But Queen Elizabeth can still be considered "beautiful." And there is a distance or elevation between us commoners and Her Majesty. This is one instance where there could be some overlap into the usage of 곱다.

One last thing I will mention about 아름답다 is that it can be used to describe nature, whereas I feel it would be less common to see something like

경치가 예쁘다 (The view is "beautiful.")

This is not to say that some Korean out there would not say it, it just would be less fitting I feel. It is quite natural however to say something like

경치가 아름답다.

Now for 예쁘다/이쁘다. These two words are (in my opinion) almost the exact same word. They may even be rooted in the same word, with two variants in pronunciation being later establish orthographically. Nevertheless, whatever their origin, I believe the two words are one-for-one interchangeable. (Listen to your emotions on this one. Honestly).

Most uses of 예쁘다/이쁘다 will revolve around physical beauty of some sort. It can be used to describe people and their various features (face, voice, eyes, smile, etc.) 예쁘다/이쁘다 can also be used to say something has gone beautifully or has been agreeable:

애들이 조용히 놀아서 정말 예쁘다! ( The children played so quietly--it was quite lovely!)

As a final note, it would sound awkward to me to use any of these words when describing the physical features of a man. I am sure that there are cases where they are used, but I do not see most Korean men being generally accepting of having the verb 예쁘다 associated with one of their features. Words like 멋지다 or 잘 생기다 would be better choices.

  • I will not downvote your answer because it's 50% (maybe 35%) right. Now, the issue is whether we should welcome and answer this kind of too broad a question without any single example sentence or context or self-research effort. I don't want this question answered before it is edited. This kind of question will require a doctoral dissertation to explain and can't be answered definitively. Also, the OP is not responding to my suggestion to split the question. (I can't comment on your answer because there are so many parts that I don't agree with your answer). Just food for your thought.
    – user7
    Commented Sep 24, 2016 at 19:06
  • 4
    That seems to be a very good answer to me. Please don't be embarassed by answering from your own experience. Languages are made by people, and naturally evolve through usage.
    – Taladris
    Commented Sep 25, 2016 at 1:29
  • @Taladris I think you missed one point. If you don't use a language properly as other people use it, you will embarrass yourself and won't be able to communicate effectively.
    – user7
    Commented Sep 25, 2016 at 4:58
  • 3
    @Rathony if you see improvements, provide your own answer. It is disingenuous to snipe at every comment and answer, but refuse to provide your own. Either answer the question yourself or stand down.
    – Vladhagen
    Commented Sep 25, 2016 at 7:06
  • As I mentioned, you need to answer an answerable, well-asked question. Answer well-asked questions. You need to read it as it is the guideline of Stack Exchange. The reason I don't answer this question is it is not well-asked and is in violation of Stack Exchange guidelines.
    – user7
    Commented Sep 25, 2016 at 7:11

예쁘다 is an adjective used to describe physical shape or behaviour. In most cases, this word is applied to things that are visible.
It can be used when something is good to see, or you think that an action is good.
In general, It has a feminine feel. Most men would feel bad if you used it to describe them.

너 참 예쁘게 생겼네. (You look very 예쁘다.)

곱다 is also an adjective for physical shape or behaviour. But in most cases it is used in the description of the "surface" of something.
For example :

그 녀석은 얼굴은 곱지만 최고의 군인이다.(The face of this guy is 곱다 but he is the best soldier.)
너의 피부가 비단결 처럼 곱다. / Your skin is so 곱다 it seems like silk.

And 예쁘다 and 곱다 are rude if you talk to someone older than you, because these two words have a little bit of a casual feeling. But 곱다 is an old fashioned word. so young guys normally do not use 곱다.

아름답다 is an adjective that can relate to combination of shape, action, sound, and feeling.
For example:

이 그림 속의 꽃은 진짜 꽃보다 예쁘지만 아름답지 않다. 향기가 없기 때문이다. (The flower in this painting is 예쁘다. compared to a real flower, but is not 아름답다. Because it does not have the scent.)

Of course, you can say 아름답다 about something good to see. but in general it can be use to say that combination of several things are good.

And 아름답다 has a more formal feeling then other two words.
So if you say 아름답다 to your friends, your friends might feel that it is strange.

  • Welcome to the site! I have tried to fix the English just a little. I hope that's OK - please feel free to edit again if I changed your meaning too much. Commented Sep 26, 2016 at 18:27
  • Thank you for fix my ugly english. but meaning has changed in case of 아름답다. unlike the other two word 아름답다 means combination of various beauty dimensions.
    – pius lee
    Commented Sep 27, 2016 at 1:12

1) 이쁘다 = 예쁘다 = pretty

We use this on face, a thing, and behavior

2) 아름답다 = well arranged state of pretty thing.

3) 곱다 = well arranged state of part or whole of a thing.

@ So if some grandmother is well-dressed, we can use 곱다.

@@ Hence we can usually use 이쁘다 to young girl. If some old woman captures our eyes in sense of looking, then judge beauty. We must consider two factors : artificial endeavor and naturalness. If the first is more dominant, then we say 이쁘다.

곱다 can be one factor to be pretty or beautiful : 머리결이 곱다. Hair is charming.

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