Sunbae – Meaning, Origin and Usage

Do you need a term you can use to reference someone who may be older than you, or who may have seniority over you in some way? Perhaps there is someone in your office that you look up to as a work mentor? Do you have an elder idol that you need the perfect nickname for?

If so, “sunbae” is the term for you. This post unpacks the meaning and origin of this expression.

Meaning

The term “sunbae”, translated from Korean, means “senior” or “elder”. It is used to refer to someone who may be older or more experienced than you, who you may look up to as a mentor or predecessor. But, this term is not typically used to refer to an older adult or an elderly person.

It uses “senior” and “elder” to mean someone who has been doing a certain action for longer than you have. This could be someone who is in a higher grade in school than you or someone who has more experience at your job.

In Korean culture, “sunbae” is the informal version of “sunbaenim”, and even in English, you would typically only use “sunbae” in a more informal setting. While it can be someone who is of more advanced age, it typically means a person has more life or work experience than you. This also works in the creative or athletic field.

Example Usage

“Sunbae Trevor has been at this job for six years!”

“Emily is sunbae to me. She’s a senior in high school and I’m only a sophomore”.

“The K-pop band BIGBANG has been around longer than BTS, so BIGBANG is BTS’ sunbae”.

“My shift manager is a very impressive sunbae, he teaches me everything possible to be effective in my position”.

“One easy way to get more experience in dance is to train with a sunbae during your off times”.

Origin

The phrase comes from Korean culture. It can be used in a variety of contexts when you want to say someone has seniority over you at a certain thing. Korean students typically begin using the word while in middle school, though it is only used in social clubs to refer to members that have been in the club longer than they have.

It is used more liberally in universities, where students refer to any one of a higher year than them as “sunbae”. Some believe the term was actually inspired by Japanese colonialism, but that cannot be proven, so the credit of use for the word is given to Korean culture.

Phrases Similar to Sunbae

  • “Hoobae” or “hubae”, which means “junior” in Korean
  • Superiors
  • Phrases Opposite to Sunbae
  • Subordinate
  • Inferiors
  • Underling
  • Beginner/freshman/newbie/etc

What is the Correct Saying?

  • “Sunbae” – “elder” or “senior”

Ways People May Incorrectly Say Sunbae

“Sunbae” refers to anyone that has been at a school or job longer than you have. Therefore, try to use “sunbae” to refer to someone who has been at that given place (again, school or work) for less time than you have. Saying something like, “she’s my sunbae. I am a senior and she’s a freshman” or “he’s a sunbae to me because I have worked here for five years and he has only been here for two” would be incorrect because those people have not been at those places as long as you have.

Acceptable Ways to Phrase Sunbae

  • If you were to refer to someone at your job as “sunbae”, you may say, “he’s a sunbae to me, he has worked here for two years and I have only been here for six months” or “I am her sunbae, because I have worked here for eight years and she has been here for five”.
  • If you wanted to use this term for someone at your school, you could say, “she’s a senior and I’m only a freshman, so she’s my sunbae”.

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