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I encountered the phrase 라떼 말이야 la-tte mal-iy-a, which I might have figured as Latte is the word, but which Google and Bing translate as I mean latte (Google)/lattes (Bing). Papago momentarily shows I’m a latte before switching to the latte. Except that sticker also has a drawing of a horse and the English words latte is horse. A tweet by Talk to me in Korean gave me some information:

라떼는 말이야 is a slang expression describing an older person saying "Back when I was young..." or "Back in my day..." (complaining about young people's behavior.)

It comes from 나 때는 말이야 (you know, in my day...). 나 때 sounds like like 라떼 (latte) :P that it’s play on 나 때는 말이야 or ‘you know, back in my day’

From what I understand of that, there are three steps here. The first is the genuine Korean expression 나 때는 말이야. The second is the slang expression 라떼는 말이야. The third is interpreting 말 as horse.

So does 라떼 말이야 mean I mean latte (or something like it); or if not, what else? This Korean Stack Exchange question and answer explains that 말이다 is sometimes used to as a function word to add details or emphasis. My wife and niece both say it’s just a silly pronunciation, and doesn’t mean anything. I understand that the translation latte is horse is just a silly joke.

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  • It's pun intended expression of 나 때는 말이야.
    – wonhee
    Aug 4, 2023 at 0:46

1 Answer 1

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말 can mean a word, phrase, sentence, or the entire language. It is much more widely used than what these words suggest though, as it can also mean the point of what you're saying or the thrust of your argument.

So the phrase 말이야 is often used in the sense of "I'm saying that ..." or "Speaking of (something), ...". For instance:

  1. 지금 안 떠나면 늦는단 말이야 = I'm saying we'll be late if we don't leave now.
  2. 나는 말이야, ... = Speaking of myself, ... (말이야 used as a lead word, just like 라떼는 말이야, ...)
  3. 그게 무슨 말이야? = What is it you're trying to say? / What do you mean by that?
    (Note that in #1, 말이야 concludes a clause referring back to what was said, whereas #2 acts like a leading phrase for more important details. The two are thus grammatically distinct)

말 is also the word for "horse", but using this as a pun doesn't seem to be done often (except by children). If a translator program translates it as a horse when the context is not about animals, I think it's just an indication of poor quality of the program.

라떼(는) 말이야 is used to poke fun at someone who like to brag or preach to young people just like in the TTMIK explanation you quoted. If you mix in the word play on 말=horse to it, you'll just confuse the other person because now they won't know your point. Word plays using homonyms can sometimes be amusing but not always.

I think the reason you are entirely clear on this phrase might be related to the fact that you often see it bandied about as a complete phrase. In actuality it is just a lead phrase (like the #2 example above) practically never said in isolation. Saying 나 때는 말이야 by itself doesn't make much sense, but you always quote it like this since it is the only constant part. When you actually say those things, you add the details following 말이야 (e.g. 나 때는 말이야, 일을 한 번 했다 하면 밤을 새면서 했어; 우리 때는 말이야, 세상에 무서운 게 없었어).

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  • I encountered this phrase on a sticker on a fridge in my local cafe. The words 'latte is horse' is on the sticker, and wasn't offered by any translator. On the other hand, I have seen translators confuse 'tea' and 'car'.
    – Sydney
    Aug 2, 2023 at 11:09
  • Reading through again, I'm still not clear - when people say 라떼 말이야 are they actually talking about coffee, or are they just jokingly mispronouncing 나 때는 말이야?
    – Sydney
    Aug 4, 2023 at 8:16
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    The phrase X-는 말이야 just introduces what you want to say, like "Speaking of X", ...". So when some older people brag about what they used to do, they (supposedly) often start with 나 때는 말이야, ... (it is never said as a full sentence in itself) and this sounds funny or annoying to some (younger) people, so they quote it and joke about such people, and turn it into 라떼는 말이야 while doing that to make it more funny. 라떼 is used only because it sounds a bit like 나 때. The joke has nothing to do with coffee but a cafe might use it since it has 라떼 in it, but people might find the joke in bad taste.
    – Tony
    Aug 4, 2023 at 16:08
  • Google finds 11 cafes named 나 때는 말이야 from Gangeung to Jinju. There's no indication of whether it's a chain, or people have decided on the name independently. I thought of English 'See you latte' - a number of cafes around that world have that name.
    – Sydney
    Aug 27, 2023 at 3:06
  • Yeah, I didn't know there are so many places with that name. The phrase went viral some three to five years ago, I think, and when that happens you have a bunch of stores adopting the name. It seems to be all independent cafes. There has been an explosion of cafes in Korea, to the point that coffee shops are the most numerous businesses in Korea now. So in that sense, it's not a surprise.
    – Tony
    Aug 27, 2023 at 14:32

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