The latest volume of the journal Korean Studies (available by subscription on Project MUSE) contains an article by Minju Kim, “On the Semantic Derogation of Terms for Women in Korean, with Parallel Developments in Chinese and Japanese” (vol. 32, pp. 148-176):
This study investigates two kinds of semantic change in terms for women in Korean, along with parallel developments in Chinese and Japanese, and examines the underlying mechanisms that cause these linguistic changes. In Korean and Chinese, polite terms for young women (akassi and xiăo jiĕ, respectively) have been taking on strong sexual connotations, due to the terms’ association with professions in the sex trade. In Korean and Japanese, terms for older sister (enni and oneesan/oneechan, respectively) have been adopted by more senior speakers to address young women, especially those in service interactions, including those in sex entertainment. This study demonstrates that besides sexist attitudes, other quite different motivations can be responsible for the semantic derogation of terms for women. In an effort to be polite, speakers have adopted positive female terms to address women of lower occupational status. Subsequently, the burden of the lower-status referents has caused the positive terms to undergo semantic derogation.
(Note that, like most linguists, Kim uses Yale romanization to represent Korean, since it most closely represents the phonemic system—and for that reason most closely transliterates hangul. The more common romanization for 아가씨 is agassi.)
Kim notes similar developments in European languages, as in the pejoration of hussy from ‘housewife’ to ‘loose woman’ in English. She also notes the pejoration of the terms for the female half in pairs of terms that used to be more equivalent, such as bachelor vs. spinster or master vs. mistress in English, or in the pairs of terms that used to distinguish ‘young man’ from ‘young woman’ in several Romance languages: Portuguese rapaz vs. rapariga, Spanish hombrezuelo vs. mujerzuela, French garçon vs. garce. (Kim spells rapariga as ramariga and mujerzuela as muerzuela.)
During China’s Cultural Revolution, according to Kim’s sources, the use of xiăo jiĕ was discouraged because of its long history of deferential use to address young ladies of the nobility. Now its use is being discouraged for its derogatory connotations by some sociologists who suggest addressing waitresses as ‘attendant, waiter’ (服务员 fúwùyuán) rather than ‘young lady’.