와크-mole

Some time ago I brought up 와크 wakeu, a mysterious North Korean loanword, in the comments to a Language Log post by Victor Mair on NK attitudes to borrowings and regionalisms. Wakeu refers to a sort of trade license, often resold in the black market as a useful tool for obtaining foreign currency. A conversation with Jongseong Park ensued. Jongseong knows a lot about Korean transcriptions of foreign words and often writes about them. This post summarises what we said in that exchange.

Both of us vaguely recalled 와크 being based on a Russian initialism. At least in my case, the ultimate source for that assumption was likely a Dong’a Ilbo story that asserted 와크 came from Russian for ‘foreign trade committee’. To complicate matters further, as Jongseong noted, the story actually transcribed the alleged Russian form 바트 bateu, which looks like a typo (but you never know).

To end up as 와크 in Korean, a Russian initialism should have been something like (in Cyrillic) ВАК or maybe ОК. The final к for комитет ‘committee’ would make sense, but I couldn’t (and still can’t) come up with a plausible Soviet initialism. Jongseong initially suggested the Высшая аттестационная комиссия (Higher Attestation Commission), which is indeed known by its initials ВАК (transliterated VAK). The problem is that the VAK has little to do with trade. The VAK is an academic institution charged with overseeing dissertation committees. It’s functions include issuing and revoking the highest academic degrees (DSc (доктор наук) and PhD (кандидат наук)) and eventually overriding the decisions of thesis committees. The Soviet VAK was established by Stalin and survives in some post-Soviet states, including Russia, where suspicions exist about its role in the fake degree industry. The VAK is nowadays subordinate to the education ministry, but back in Stalin’s day it had a more powerful position and was used to refuse academic degrees to political or ethnic undesirables (here’s a first person account of how that worked). It’s unclear to me if North Korea has or ever had a similar institution (China, for example, doesn’t have an analogous centralised degree-issuing organ), and at any rate the connection to trade permits would be unclear. The etymology of 와크 is still a mystery.

Besides 와크, Korean-language sources often give another word for those trade licenses: 지표 jipyo. 와크 and 지표 might refer to two different types of license, to the organ issuing the permit and the permit itself, or just be roughly synonymous. Maybe 와크 is frowned upon as ‘foreign’ while 지표 is acceptable in official context as a pure (Sino-)Korean (yeah, I know). It’s not just me being confused; this authoritative-looking report (page 14 of the pdf) from the Korea Development Institute (한국개발연구원, KDI) isn’t sure about how to distinguish the two terms either. Whatever its precise semantics, 지표 is also something of an etymological puzzle. The most common word pronounced 지표 is probably the one spelt 指標 in hanja and meaning ‘index’, but its homonym 紙票 ‘paper slip’ looks like a better candidate for ‘permit’. Jongseong quotes the entry for this second 지표 from a 1992 North Korean dictionary, where one of the definitions is ‘banknote’, marked as obsolete.

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