I've heard '마음을 먹다' translated as to 'make up one's mind' or to 'have a mind' (to do something).

Is it neutral in feeling, or does it imply hiding or deadening one's emotions in preparation for doing something unpleasant?

Also, how does the metaphor of 'eating' your mind/heart work? can it be compared to any other similar ____을 먹다 expressions?

  • 1
    +1 for digging into the inner mechanism. The expression may have started out as a metaphor, but I don't believe it crosses anyone's mind now that there is any eating in 마음을 먹다. No hiding or deadening.
    – Catomic
    Commented Jan 23, 2017 at 10:14
  • Aww.... I made an answer.... I was supposed to sleep but I couldn't ignore this...
    – Ting Choe
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 15:20
  • 마음을 먹다(x), 마음먹다(o), **마음먹다 is a one word.
    – guest 1
    Commented Mar 6, 2019 at 2:16
  • 마음을 먹다 is also correct. Otherwise, we couldn't have 마음(을) 굳게 먹다 or 마음(을) 편히 먹다 or even 마음만 먹으면. Just because decisionmaking becomes a word, that doesn't make decision making wrong.
    – Catomic
    Commented Dec 22, 2023 at 1:06

5 Answers 5


As regards metaphor, you can see how little of it remains in 마음을 먹다 (if metaphor it ever was) by noting the unavailability of the following expressions:

  • 마음을 들다.
  • 마음을 잡수다.

Compare 나이를 먹다, which can become, e.g.:

  • 나이 드신 양반 (an aged gent)
  • 선생님, 나이 헛잡수셨군요. (Sir, you've aged in vain--said of and to an older person acting foolishly.)

To start from the basics, 드시다 (a form of 들다) and 잡수다 are the more respectful versions of 먹다 in the primary sense of to eat. (Thus children 먹다, but one's elders 드시다 or 잡수다. Cf. animals feed, guests dine.) Because almost no sense of eating survives in 마음을 먹다, these other verbs cannot take the place of 먹다 in it.

먹으시다 may work (barely) if, for some rhetorical reason, you must use 마음을 먹다 for an elder.

선생님, 마음을 먹으셨으면 끝까지 해내셔야죠. (Sir, if you made up your mind, you should see it through to the end.)

However, using one of 결심하다, 작심하다, 작정하다 would be better. E.g.:

작심하셨으면 끝까지 해내셔야죠.

One usage requiring the exact nuance of 마음을 먹다 would be:

마음만 먹으면 못 할 일이 없다. (If only one is determined nothing is impossible--or literally, if only [missing subject] is determined, there is nothing [missing subject] cannot do.)

This you can say as a general truth, or to someone to encourage him, or of someone to mean that he is capable.

Replacing 마음만 먹으면 in it with e.g. 결심만 하면 would be perfectly grammatical but kill the poetry as it were.

Thus you might actually end up saying to an elder:

선생님께서 마음만 먹으시면 못 하실 일이 없을 것입니다. (If you, sir, only set your mind to it, nothing will be impossible, as spoken to the person in question; or if he only set. . . . as spoken of him to someone else.)

Similarly (i.e. other cases requiring 먹다 for nuance):

  • 마음 먹기에 달렸다. (It depends on what one decides, or how one looks at it, or one's attitude.)
  • 마음 먹기 나름이다. (Ditto.)

Otherwise, the degree of seriousness implied in 결심하다, 작심하다 or 작정하다 is perhaps not less than that in 마음을 먹다 or, if I had to put a number, 90% of the way.

Plain deciding is 결정하다 or 정하다.


On 들다 vs. 드시다 in response to Long's comments: "들다 does not mean eat, but 드시다. I have checked Naver dictionary several times. Can you provide the source?"

I don't believe 드시다 is a separate word but a form of 들다. If this is correct, then we would want to say (at least) that to eat is a meaning of 들다 in certain forms.

An analogy is in English may be to ravish. It has the meaning of (something like) charming or delighting only in certain forms (e.g. Ravishing!). But we don't deny the word the meaning in dictionaries for that reason.

But I have evidence that to eat is a meaning of 들다 in any form. Consider:

어서들 들어! (You all dig in--said by a host at table.)

This a grandmother might say to her same-age-group friends (in place of 어서들 먹어, which a young person might say to her same-age friends).

어서들 들어 is absolutely idiomatic.

If we accept the above, we'd say that Naver dictionary ought to have listed to eat as a meaning of 들다. Nothing trumps native speakers' usage when it comes to meaning of words.

I have however amended the answer to say that 드시다 is what you want to say of your elders because that is the far more common form in which you would find this usage of the word 들다.

I also notice that the original version of answer does not address this portion of the question expressly: "Is it neutral in feeling, or does it imply hiding or deadening one's emotions in preparation for doing something unpleasant?" 마음을 먹다 is said of firm decisions. So the matter was probably important, the doing of the thing decided perhaps difficult, and the consequences heavy. So emotions may be at play, but I don't believe they need be unpleasant or require hiding or suppressing. You might for example 마음을 먹다 to ask somebody's hand in marriage.

  • 들다 does not mean eat, but 드시다. I have checked Naver dictionary several times. Can you provide the source?
    – Long
    Commented Dec 15, 2023 at 7:04
  • @Long I have amended the answer to take your comments into account.
    – Catomic
    Commented Dec 21, 2023 at 1:44
  • thanks, after asking my Korean friend I can confirm this is true. Also I just remember that we Vietnamese people also use a Chinese-origin word "Thực" (which is corresponding to "들다"), and it sounds more formal than "ăn" (which is corresponding to "먹다"). "Thực" is not that commonly used as "들다" in Korean as a verb though, but mostly in a noun-phrase form (e.g., "thực khách" as in "들 + 객" (드시는 고객분).
    – Long
    Commented Dec 23, 2023 at 5:06

마음을 먹다 is in a very strong sense. Since its literal meaning is "eat you heart", you could feel how strong it is.

So, unless you are 100% sure to have the resolve, use 결심하다 instead.

There are some other examples where 먹다 is not used to mean "eat" in English.

귀가 먹다 -> deaf
나이를 먹다 -> attain certain age(usually 45-60)
야심을 먹다 -> ambit(possess ambition)

  • 1
    +1 You only hear of eating tobacco in 호랑이가 담배 먹던 시절, meaning a legendary time referred to at the outset of a story; there it means to smoke. If said of a person, it means someone's actually eating tobacco. 야심을 먹다 is not very idiomatic. 앙심(怏心)을 먹다 (bear a grudge) is idiomatic, as are 야심을 품다 and 앙심을 품다. I have never seen 결심을 먹다.
    – Catomic
    Commented Jan 23, 2017 at 10:15
  • 1
    결심하다 is same or even stronger to me. there is ~할 작정하다 which more stronger than them
    – Sung
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 3:18
  • 1
    There is no 야심을 먹다 but 야심을 품다
    – Sung
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 3:20

I wanted to ignore this question because there were two answers. However, I don't understand what they are talking about...

'마음을 먹다' is not metaphor.
먹다 has a lot of meaning. In dictionary, There are two kinds of 먹다(먹다1, 먹다2)
먹다2 has the nineteen meanings. (http://krdic.naver.com/detail.nhn?docid=13180000)

1 .음식 따위를 입을 통하여 배 속에 들여보내다. (eat, drink or take, etc.)

밥을 먹다. (eat a meal)
술을 먹다. (drink alchole)
약을 먹다. (take a medicine)

4 .어떤 마음이나 감정을 품다.(make up one's mind/to have a mind)

세상일이란 마음 먹기에 달려 있다.(Success depends on what you have in mind)
한번 먹은 마음이 변하지 않도록 하자.(Sorry.. difficult to translate.)
마음 독하게 먹어라. (Sorry. difficult to translate.)

So it's not a metaphor. "마음을 먹다" literally means "to have a mind" by definition 4 (NOT definition 1).

When you study Korean, you have to know one word has a lot of different meanings.

I really surprised when I saw that the first answer had gotten 6 vote!!! Forget about "eat your heart." We never use "먹다" like that. Who can eat heart? You can find one in the movie "Saw" haha.

Please, reply if you have more questions.

  • So are you saying that 먹다 in "마음을 먹다" is a homonym of 먹다 meaning eat? i.e. a completely different word, but with the same spelling? Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 15:52
  • I don't know homonym.
    – Ting Choe
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 15:56
  • I cannot say completely different meaning. However, if you think eat a meal and have a mind are totally different, you can say homonym. I think English has many words like this such as take, have, get, etc.
    – Ting Choe
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 15:58
  • anyways metaphor is for the words that cannot be explained by dictionary. In this case, dictionary is explaining about the sentence clearly. It's not a metaphor. This is just a simple sentence.
    – Ting Choe
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 16:02
  • 1
    마음을 먹다 is not a metaphor to any native Korean speaker living today, I dare say. But this may not get you as far as homonyms. It's very possible that the same word 먹다 expanded in meaning, or even that 마음을 먹다 started out as metaphor when tigers ate tobacco. Besides, I don't know that the boundary of metaphor is always clear. Consider transports of joy or report of a rifle. Are these metaphors? They are certainly not homonyms (to that in troop transport or annual report). @topomorto
    – Catomic
    Commented Jan 27, 2017 at 1:13

As an extension/ giving examples to the TING CHOE's answer:

Think of 먼지 먹은 이불. The 먹다 here means "absorb and not let go." Same as in 먹을 먹은 붓.

마음을 먹다 is the exact same situation. 마음 is an intention. It just means that you hold onto an idea/ intention and not let go forever.

I don't know if this has to do with it but, by extension, the 먹다 in 귀먹은 장님 can mean he's absorbed too much stuff in the ear(s) so he's too damped to the extension of not being able to hear anything. Am I getting too creative here? Because I'm not one hundred percent sure here.


'먹다' in '마음을 먹다' is not a metaphor. It's just a right usage of a word. '먹다' can be a homonym, but in this case, it is just polysemy.

If you search a word and the dictionary categorizes word as '먹다1', '먹다2', those are two different words.(homonym)

If '먹다1' has more than two meanings (1) ~~ (2) ~~~, those words share similar context(or at least similar in fundamental way), but have different usage or meaning. (polysemy)

  • Standard Korean Language Dictionary says: 먹다2 (1) 음식 따위를 입을 통하여 배 속에 들여보내다. (4) 어떤 마음이나 감정을 품다. Korea University Korean Language Dictionary says: 먹다1 (1) (사람이나 짐승이 음식물을) 입으로 씹거나 하여 뱃속으로 들여보내다. (5) (사람이 어떤 생각이나 감정 따위를) 마음속으로 가지다.
    – Ignatius
    Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 0:33

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