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Explaining Why the Korean Soccer Team Was Pelted With Toffee Candy
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By now you might have heard that the Korean soccer team had a rather unpleasant welcome back to Seoul after a disappointing exit at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

korean soccer sign

Harsh Homecoming

At Incheon International Airport, not only were they greeted by a large banner reading "한국축구는 죽었다!!" ("Korean Soccer Is Dead!") and "너땜에졌어"("We Lost Because of You"), but they were also pelted with handfuls of yeot (엿) candy by disgruntled fans. (It's important to note that it was not a huge mob of people causing this disruption, but reportedly just a couple of guys who are part of a larger online group of angry supporters.)

The caption above reads "엿먹어라 엿먹어!"—meaning, "Eat yeot, eat yeot!"

You don't need Google Translate to figure out the general mood of the candy-throwers, and this petulant act was picked up by media around the world. Most outlets mentioned that in Korea, being told to "eat toffee" is considered an insult with definitions of varying vulgarity ("eat sh*t," "eat a d*ck," "get lost," "f*ck you").

But why? And what is so significant about toffee, anyway? Here's everything you need to know:

  • First the candy itself: Yeot has been part of Korean culture even before the Joseon Dynasty, as early as the 12th century. It is a traditional snack that continues to be consumed to this day.

yeot raw

Yeot in its raw form

  • Yeot is often translated as "toffee," which is apt because it is extremely sweet and also extremely sticky when it melts. It comes in various forms, but is most popularly consumed as a type of candy. There are myriad grains and malts (more on this later) used to make yeot—they even use pork and pheasant in regions like Jejudo—but the most famous type is pumpkin. Which, incidentally, is the type of yeot thrown at the players in Incheon.

yeot pumpkin

The actual brand of pumpkin yeot candy tossed at the team

  • Speaking of its stickiness: Yeot is given as a good-luck gift to a student preparing for a big test, as a means of wishing one to "stick" the exam (since in Korean, the verb "붙었다" or "stuck," is used to describe passing a test). 

  • So where does the insult come in? Well first of all, there are 16th-century texts that mention the word yeot being used by traveling performers as a euphemism for the male member. Which kind of makes sense, given the somewhat phallic shape of its raw form. 

King Gwanghae tells his counsel to "eat yeot" in the film Masquerade (2012)

  • But the real reason why "eat yeot!" ("엿 먹어라!") is thought of as a popular putdown in modern Korea comes from an incident in Seoul in 1964. Stay with us on this, it's a little complicated: On the entry exams to get into Kyunggi Middle School, students were asked a multiple-choice question about the ingredients used to make yeot. "Diastase" was provided as the correct answer. Problem was, another of the choices was "mu juice" (무즙), which many students ended up choosing—and were subsequently marked as incorrect. When parents of those kids caught wind of the discrepancy, they protested by bringing yeot made of mu juice to education bureaus and screaming "eat yeot!" 

  • The school board first decided to give one point each to students that marked either "diastase" or "mu juice." But that of course riled up parents of students that marked "diastase," since it seemed unfair to their children. That's when the board threw up its hands and decided to dismiss the question altogether. 

yeot newspaper 2

Triumphant parents in the Dong-a Ilbo newspaper on Dec. 22, 1964

  • Here's where things got even more Korean: Because the school year had already started, the board decided to admit all 38 students who failed to get into Kyunggi Middle School due to the yeot question. But during this process, the board snuck in a few non-passing kids, including the child of a secretary in the Blue House. When this was discovered, he was ousted by President Park Chung-hee, creating an additional scandal. Under President Park's orders, the head of education in Seoul was also removed, and the Kyunggi principal was transferred.  

  • All this for yeot. As you might deduce from the story above, it is hard to pin down an exact literal translation of "eat yeot," but we prefer "eat sh*t, a**hole." (Non-Koreans love to say it, too!) Sorry, Korean soccer team.