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Ulzzang (Korean: “얼짱,” literally meaning “best face”) is a South Korean internet slang term that is commonly used to describe attractive looking netizens. Unlike other mainstream celebrities or actors that are known for similar appeals, “Ulzzang” usually refers to an ordinary person who arises to internet stardom solely as a result of his or her good look.
The honorary title “Ulzzang” began to spread on the Korean web circa late 1990s, shortly after the introduction of consumer-grade digital cameras and social networking site Cyworld. Since its beginning, the term became closely associated with an emerging self-photography practice known as “Sel-ka,” which is short for the Konglish term “self-camera.” On the English-speaking web, there is a similar technique known as the MySpace angles.
The earliest known use of the label has been attributed to a group of three high school girls Song He Kyo, Lee Yu Jin and Han Hye Jin (shown below; top left) who collectively became known as the “Eun-Kwang Ulzzang Trio,” named after the school they attended together in 2000. All of the three eventually went onto pursue modeling and acting careers.
The term “Ulzzang,” a portmanteau of Korean words for face (“Ul-gul”) and best (“Zzang”), first came into usage in the mid to late 1990s, shortly after the superlative suffix “Zzang” entered the online vernacular among teenagers. There are two main linguistic theories as to the etymology of the term: one is rooted in the old Chinese character “Zang” (長) which means the head or the chief and the other theory asserts that it is derived from the Japanese honorific “-chan,” which has a different meaning but used in a stylistically similar way. The term “Zzang” became officially accepted as a Korean slang term in 2002 with its recognition by the National Institute of the Korean Language.
While the concept of “Ulzzang” initially spread through words of mouth among high school students in the late 90s, the term became heavily associated with good-looking internet celebrities in 2000 after it was embraced by a number of popular message board sites like Daum Cafe as well as the proto-social networking site Cyworld. In the following years, numerous bulletin board-style “Ulzzang Cafes” were launched to serve as beauty-ranking websites in similar vein of Hot or Not. The phenomenon became even more widespread with the launch of Haduri, a webcam application and a photo-sharing platform focused on servicing the “Ulzzang” subculture.
Some of the most notable internet celebrities to emerge from this era included Nam Sang Mi, Koo Hye Sun, Han Byul Park and Joo Yun Park. Both Nam and Koo were first spotted by their neighboring high school classmates while working a part-time job at the fast food chain Lotteria and subsequently became known as the “Lotteria Ulzzangs” on various message boards.
The term was subsequently introduced to the broader audiences outside of teenage demographics when the term was referenced in an episode of the 2002 TV drama series Romance. Following the mainstream debut of first-generation Ulzzangs, online fan clubs around individual began to emerge as well.
As early as in 2003, talent agencies began reaching out to well-known “ulzzang” celebrities to offer them a career in television and films. In 2004, “Ulzzang” was listed as one of the most popular search keywords of the year by Korea’s leading daily newspaper Dong-a Ilbo, based on the analytics data provided by the country’s four major portal sites Naver, Daum, Empas and Nate. In October 2008, a Google search for the term “Ulzzang” yielded more than 8.17 million page results, in comparison to that of the conventional term “Mi-In,” (which means “a beauty”) with 6.4 million pages results.
The widespread use of the term “Ulzzang” eventually spawned a number of other “-zzang” labels, most notably “Mom-Zzang” which literally means the “best body.” As the term continued to evolve in meaning, more unordinary celebrities began to emerge as a result of their good looks, such as “Gangjjang” (shown below), a female burglar who became notorious for her fair mask as seen in the wanted posters.
Dong-A Daily – Keywords Reveal Korea’s Most-Searched Topics in 2004
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