I was referring to words such as 사원, 주임, 대리, 과장, 차장, 부장, 실장, 수석부장, 이사, 상무, 전무, 사장, 회장

So it was always bothering me what the true meaning of these workplace titles mean and what's their etymology.

With the exception of 실장, the rest are really hard to understand and even google or papago cannot properly translate them.

So, can you explain that?

source for Korean English mapping of these titles: http://www.asiaoptions.org/korean-company-hierarchy-structure-business-titles/

  • For etymology, you can always find Korean dictionary. For example, <ko.dict.naver.com>. There you can see definition of standard Korean dictionary/Korea university Korean dictionary/'우리말샘'(literally our language fountain) . And you can find Chinese character if it is sino-Korean, or first occurrence if it is pure Korean.
    – LegenDUST
    Oct 5, 2019 at 9:38
  • yes I know that, but the problem is I need to look up hanja dict and then it gets complicated for me because I do not know hanja and also my Korean is not advanced. Thanks anyway
    – eugen
    Oct 5, 2019 at 11:10
  • There is also Hanja dictionary at naver dictionary. hanja.dict.naver.com . Also you can use wiktionary.
    – LegenDUST
    Oct 5, 2019 at 11:21
  • Actually, it doesn't have TRUE meaning nowadays. It just idneitify who is higher (like army).
    – mharti
    Oct 8, 2019 at 2:23

2 Answers 2


So, you wanted etymology, right? Well, every words you wrote is sino-Korean, which means it is composed with Chinese character.

Let's start with 사원. 사원 is 社員 in Chinese character. 社 means 'to meet', and it is also 사 of 회사. 員 means 'number of people'(인원), and it can be used as meaning of member. (조직원 : gang member)

Next is 주임. At Korean dictionary, it says it means '직장, 단체 따위에서 어떤 일을 주로 담당함. 또는 그런 사람'(rough translation : mostly in charge of some work at job or organization. Or one who do that.). It is 主任 in Chinese character. 主 means 'owner', but it is also used at word 주로, means mostly. 任 means 'assign (some work)', and it also used in 임무, means assignment or duty.

대리 comes next. It is exactly same word with 'substitution', 'deputy', or 'proxy'. 代理 in Chinese character. 代 means 'replace;, and 理 means 'govern' or 'rule', and maybe 'process some work'. At dictionary, it says '은행이나 회사 따위의 집단에서 부장, 지점장, 과장 등의 직무를 대신하는 직위. 또는 그 직위에 있는 사람. 흔히 유사시 과장의 직무를 대신할 수 있는, 과장 바로 아래의 고정된 직위를 이르기도 한다.', roughly translate, it means 'position that can substitute 부장, 점장, 과장's duty at the bank, company, etc. Or one who at that position. Normally, it also means position directly lower than 과장, who can substitute duty of 과장 at emergency'.

Next is 과장. Before we talk about 과장, we have to know what is 과. It is one of department, normally lower than '부' or '실'. 課長 in Chinese character. 課 is 과. (Just for information, it means to study or process.) And 長 normally means 'long', but it also means chief of something. So 과장 means chief of 과.

Same thing with 부장(chief of 부部 : 'group' or 'command'), 실장(chief of 실室: house. Also means chief of organization end with 실 like 연구실.).

차장 is somewhat different. 차 is 次, means 'to be second to'. So it means 'Position that is second to 장. Or one who at that position.'

수석 means 'First place'. 首席, and 首 means 'head', 席 means 'seat'. So 수석부장 is 'highest 부장'.

이사 means 'Executive organization which processes office work of corporate body and takes legal action. Or one who at that position'. 理事 in Chinese character. I talked about 理 at 대리, and 事 means 'work'. I don't know how this became that.

상무 is same with 상무 이사 (or 상무위원 if it is public organization, and I'll skip it.). 상무 itself means 'Everyday work', and 상무 이사 means 'Organization which processes normal works at some organization or company. Or one who does it.' 常務, 常 means 'always', and 務 means 'labor for something'.

전무 means 1. Expertly handles some job. Or one who does it', and 2. '=전무 이사'.(One of 이사 of company. Direct work of company while assist 사장 and 부사장.). 專 or 專務 means 'only', and 務 is same with 상무.

사장 is chief of 사社, which is 회사. Same 사 with 사원.

Then, what is 회장? So I don't think it is just simply 'chief of 회', although Chinese character version means it. 會 is 회 of 회장, means 'to meet', and also 회 of 회자. In Korean dictionary, it says it is 'position higher than 사장. Normally it means chief of corporation, etc.'

Sorry for bad English, and there might be wrong translation/wrong description. But if you have any question, please reply.

  • excellent work. I think you meant 회사 when you sad "and also 회 of 회자. In Korean dictionary". I have one more question, do Koreans know these words with their origin in mind or do they just memorize them without going deeper into hanja? Or is it somewhere in between?
    – eugen
    Oct 5, 2019 at 2:11
  • 2
    I think, it's only think, people know origin of position names ends with '장', and '사원', and 수석~, but not others. I didn't know 대리 is same 대리 in everyday conversation until I find it at dictionary. ...Actually, I don't know position name that well, because I'm not employee.
    – LegenDUST
    Oct 5, 2019 at 2:21

This is only a partial answer, as something like 사원 clearly has an ordinary meaning ("employee"), but for many others you listed, there's no clear English counterpart. The "true meaning" of these words are the words themselves: they are just different titles signifying different levels at a Korean company.

Consider, for example, English words for military ranks: general, colonel, major, captain, lieutenant. These words sometimes have different meanings that are "explainable", and they certainly have etymologies, but when used as a military title, they are just that - the meaning of major is pretty much "a military title, higher than captain but lower than lieutenant colonel".

Similarly, the meaning of 과장 is pretty much "a title in a typical Korean company, higher than 대리 but lower than 차장". There's no other "true meaning".

  • so there is no meaning even when decomposed into hanja? I wanted to know some background which probably one can get if decompose into hanja and do etymology search?
    – eugen
    Oct 5, 2019 at 0:43
  • 1
    @eugen Unfortunately, analyzing those customary words using hanja does not always explain why one rank is higher than another. For example, 대리 (代理) and 대표 이사 (代表理事) have the same characters, 代 and 理, but 대표 이사 is much higher (Actually, 대리 refers to 과장 대리; the omission of 과장 does not relate to hanja). Some 회사 (會社) have 회장 (會長) and 사장 (社長), but 회장 is higher although 會 and 社 have the same meaning. That is just how companies use such words.
    – Klmo
    Oct 6, 2019 at 1:15
  • thanks, I now get that. It is therefore I think good to ask such things in here
    – eugen
    Oct 6, 2019 at 10:33

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