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This is another word that is sometimes confusing to people learning Korean.  할머니, romanized halmoni, is most often used to mean grandmother.  But sometimes, someone who is not your biological grandmother, or who is not your grandmother is called 할머니.    Why is this?  Who can you refer to as 할머니?  Will a woman be mad if you call her that?  Let’s take a look.

Who Else is 할머니

As mentioned before, 할머니 is most used to refer to your grandmother.  But if you have adopted a woman, you can call her this as well.  But the word 할머니 can have another meaning.  According to some dictionaries, 할머니 can refer to a older woman.  Does it have to be a woman who has grandchildren?  Not necessarily.  Some women have grandchildren at an earlier age.  So while a woman in this case would be a 할머니,  people who do not know her may call her 아줌마.

As a side note, in Korean dramas, you may hear an older woman being called 할머니.  But the subtitles will not use that word.  They may refer to her as Mrs. Kim or Mrs. Park.  This is normally do to international audiences not knowing about Korean culture and how older Korean people should be viewed.  In Korean culture, a woman who is old enough to be your grandmother should be referred to as 할머니 instead of as Mrs. Kim or Mrs. Park.  Because she is a grandmother, she should be treated with the same love and respect as your grandmother.  Korean culture is one big family, so you should do your best to respect older people unless they prove they do not deserve respect.  In my personal experience, people that I talk to from Korea do not refer to each other as Mr. or Mrs. in regular conversation.  When hearing someone saying that, it is usually a Korean American speaking a blended form of Korean mixed with American terminology.

Will She Get Mad?

What if you call an older woman 할머니?   Will she hit you?  Not necessarily.  If she feels that she is not old enough to be called that, she may get upset.  Otherwise, a 할머니 is someone who is shown the most respect in the culture.  So there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be respectful towards an older person.  This is why it can be common to ask a person how old they are in Korean.  The age difference will determine what kind of relationship you have with the person.

If you are confused about what to call an older woman, you can call her 엄마, mom, and see how she reacts.  If she feels she is too old to be your mom, she’ll correct you and tell you to call her 할머니.  Either way, if you are respectful and kind, you will quickly gain a new member of your extended Korean family.