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The dictionaries I have access to, either list no etymology or simply ‘Of Native Korean origin’ for the words listed in the question. Their definitions are as follows:

  • 팔꿈치: elbow
  • 앞꿈치: in the ITF syllabus ‘ball of foot’
  • 뒤꿈치: heel, or in the ITF syllabus ‘back heel’, or on zKorean ‘back sole’

(In the ITF syllabus, elbow is merely 팔꿈*; as the syllabus is some seventy years old, I thought this could be an old way of saying elbow. However, on Naver, I could find example sentences using just 팔꿈.)

My question in short is: What is the etymology of and what specifically does 꿈치, or 꿈 and 치, mean?

* Actually, the spelling is palkup < *팔꿉.

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According to the 역사정보 historical information section for 팔꿈치 of the Naver 국어 사전(Korean-Korean dictionary), translated here:

The modern standard Korean '팔꿈치' appears in 18th century documents as 'ᄑᆞᆯ굼티' (pawl-gum-ti, where 'aw' is the romanisation of the arae-a ㆍ ). In the 19th century dictionary 한불자전 Hanbul Jajeon, mention is made of '발굼치 跟 (the hanja for 'heel')' and '굼치 跟 (the same hanja)', and the former is analysed as a compound word.

In the entry for 발꿈치, we find the following:

The older form '발굼치' appears in 16th century documents. It appears to be compound of 발 and 굼치, but a clear analysis of '굼치' is difficult. Even so, an example '팔굼치' (foot + 굼치) is found in the 19th century.

A comment from 2010 on the website for the Korean Language & Culture Institute at Ewha Woman's University states:

It is possible to guess the meaning by looking at the meaning of the words used in combination with '꿈치'. [...] Judging from these meanings, the suffix '꿈치' can be thought of as having something to do with 'a curved or bent part exposed to the outside of the body'.

Although I disagree with the analysis at the end that '앞꿈치' is not used, seeing that the several rows of joints (distal interphalangeal, proximal interphalangeal, metatarsalphalangeal) of the human forefoot can and do curve, this idea that 꿈치 and "curving/bending" makes good semantic sense, especially if linked with the verb 굽다/굽히다.

Cross-linguistically it is not strange for 'elbow' to be a compound of 'arm' and 'curve/bend', attested e.g. in some of the topolects of Chinese, and less transparently with Germanic (including English, where elbow = ell + bow) too.

There is also a bound lexeme in many Korean dialects, -꿉이 (e.g. 팔꿉이 in Gangwon and Hamgyeong Provinces). It is unclear whether this is cognate to the standard -꿈치, or whether this corresponds with the noun 굽 hoof (of a horse, goat, or other hoofed animal) / foot of a bowl, and whether these are all actually the same family of cognates.

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  • Can you explain what you mean with ‘this idea that 꿈치 and "curving" makes good semantic sense, especially if linked with the verb 굽다/굽히다.’ How does it make semantic sense? I think this is connected to your connection to the Germanic words, but am not sure, as my knowledge of Korean is very limited. Are you thinking it might be a case of a form of assonance 굽ㄷ>굼? Also, does this explain the abbreviation 팔꿈치 > 팔꿈 > 팔굽 (which is the ITF form often encountered). Otherwise, thank you for a very enlightening answer.
    – Canned Man
    Jan 9, 2023 at 16:57
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    Quick bit of Korean grammar: nominalisation of verbs, somewhat to English -ing.
    – Michaelyus
    Jan 9, 2023 at 22:38
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    The elbow, the knee and the ankle are places where the limbs physically bend or bow, so the "bend in the arm/leg" becomes a compound "arm/leg-bend", hence the semantic connection.
    – Michaelyus
    Jan 9, 2023 at 22:41
  • That grammar post was really helpful.
    – Canned Man
    Jan 11, 2023 at 12:17

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