Asian or Oriental?

A reader who has just finished my book, The Big Bang to Now:  All of Time in Six Chunks has asked me what the difference is between Orientals and Asians.  I had thought the terms were more or less synonymous, both meaning “Eastern.”

But according to the Urban Dictionary, the definitions are by no means simple.  In America, it is politically incorrect to refer to people as “Orientals.”   Oriental describes objects like rugs and fans, Asian describes people.   In fact, one person even suggests it is derogatory and racist to refer to people as Orientals because the term carries with it overtones of European colonialism in China and is equated with terms like Negro, Coon, Paki, and Mic.

Here in Britain, Asian refers to people from south east Asia, mainly India and Pakistan, but not to people from China or Japan.  Oriental is not considered derogatory, even by Asians.

So what Asian and Oriental mean depends on who is  talking or listening.  The safest option seems  to refer to the individual countries by name whenever possible.

If I were writing my book again, I’d steer clear of the word oriental altogether.

And I apologize to anyone who may feel I have used to term to suggest that people from Asia are mere objects.  The very idea is obviously ridiculous.



About Terry Sissons

Terry Sissons is the author of The Big Bang to Now: All of Time in Six Chunks, and this blog is a dialogue about the universe and what’s happened in the last 13 billions years.
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2 Responses to Asian or Oriental?

  1. Fascinating just catching up on one of the few palatable prose on wp. ! As an avid anti PC thinker I use the only valid Dictionary – the OED! Which informs me that the word Orient ie countries east of the Mediterranean has been in use for over 2000 years. Orientals are thus peoples living in the afore said countries. To correct the unread urban collection of misinformation may I offer this: A ‘w o g’ for example is a ‘western oriental gentleman’ a self deprecating description used in the sub continent of India – not the popular description [ in many wordpress items] for the american president !! Incidently when in these far off oriental countries I do wish they would not describe me as a westerner – I am an English,European 🙂
    Finally wishing you a Happy 2013

    • Thank you for your informative comments, your generous compliment, and new year wishes. The etymology of WOG is quite a revelation – I had no idea.

      Like you, my first response is not one of tolerance for PC thinking. Unfortunately, language is a continuously evolving process, and I have found that if I do not want to be misunderstood, I need to understand not only what a word means to me (or the OED), but what it means to the recipient as well. So I do not refer to our western oriental gentleman now living across the street as ever having been a wog. Even if he was If you know what I mean…

      So you are an English European Laird?

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