Students were writing dialogues or speeches to present for their midterm speaking exams. I briefly checked as many as I could, but couldn’t check every detail of every one. As the students were leaving, one pair put their dialogues in front of me and said ‘Is this right?’. I glanced over it and one sentence jumped out at me: “I used to be cremated.” All I could say was “That’s just wrong. Check it very carefully.”
The next morning I was telling a colleague about this, and she checked her Korean/English translator and found ‘화장 [hwa-jang]: makeup, cremation’. (This word is most often encountered as part of the Korean word for toilet/bathroom, 화장실 (hwa-jang-shil) – literally the ‘powder room’ (even for men). (One of the first Korea words I learned!))
The first questions are whether these two words have the same derivation, in which case what is it, and how have they acquired these divergent meanings, or whether they are two different words which just happen to have the same spelling and pronunciation. My first thought was that, historically, poor people were only made up before they were buried or cremated; my second was the use of ash or charcoal as basic makeup. (By the way, as far as I know, burial was the standard procedure in historical times here, not cremation.)
But no – they really are two different words. Korean Wikipedia has a disambiguation page which includes different Chinese characters for each.
화장(化粧 [) …, which leads to a page called 화장 (미용) [beauty].
화장(火葬) …, which leads to a page called 화장 (장례) [funeral] (though Google Translate renders that as ‘cosmetic (funeral)’ rather than ‘cremation (funeral)’).
There is also a movie by that name which I am hoping is about makeup and not cremation.
Given that those students found ‘화장: makeup, cremation’, I can’t figure out why they chose to use ‘cremation’ rather than ‘makeup’. The word 메이크업 (me-i-keu-eop) is commonly used in Korean, and there’s every possibility that they have encountered the English spelling. Even if cremation appears first alphabetically, they should have looked at the second word as well and realised that they knew it. Maybe they typed in the sentence 화장 했어요, but I can’t image that any translator would translate that as ‘I was cremated’ rather than ‘I put on my makeup’. (There is an active/passive thing here, too. The literal translations are ‘I did cremation’ and ‘I did makeup’. More precise expressions can be made by adding more words.)
One way of at least partly checking a translation is to reverse-translate it. Google Translate translates 화장 as makeup, cremation, then makeup as 구성 (gu-seong), 화장, 메이크업 and cremation as 화장, 소각 (so-gak). In turn, 구성 is configuration, construction, composition, constitution, concoction and 소각 is incineration, cremation. So there is a chain of words which overlap but rarely match one-to-one:
Anyway, those students arrived for their midterm exam early, so I was able to check their dialogue, and they had changed that line already. I showed them the Korean Wikipedia page. They then got an above-average score for their exam.
[PS 7 May: Courtesy of this Language Log post, I have just discovered that ‘fard’ is an old word for ‘makeup’, so apparently ladies fard in the bathroom a lot. Whereas men …]