“Oriental:” Death of a Semi-Slur

While reading yesterday’s paper, I skimmed a news piece about Nina Davuluri, the first Indian-American Miss America winner. Being American, I was puzzled by the journalist’s description of Davuluri as the first “Asian-American” to win. It’s an illogical reaction on my part; Davuluri is Asian-American. “Asian,” however, has long been shorthand for “East Asian” in American English dialects, as Separated by a Common Language‘s Lynne Murphy discussed some years back:

In BrE, when Asian is used to refer to a person, culture or cuisine, it is most usually referring to someone or something South Asian (i.e. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka). In the US and, it turns out, Australia, Asian typically refers to people/things from East Asia (China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, etc.).

Demographics almost certainly play a role here. Over 4% of Australia’s population (for example) is of Chinese ancestry, compared to less than .5% in the UK. Yet for me, “Asian” fills a lexical gap left by a word banished from my vocabulary as a child: “oriental.” Murphy briefly addresses this taboo term later in the post:

I have also heard the word Oriental as a noun or adjective referring to people more often in this country than I have in the US (mostly from over-60s), leading me to wonder if (a) it’s perceived as less politically incorrect here than in the States, (b) I just hang out with more older, white people in the UK (who might not have caught up with the fact that Oriental is not preferred)

But how did the word become offensive to begin with? Etymologically-speaking, “oriental” is hardly pejorative, deriving from a French term which basically translates to “Eastern” (and still exists as French “orientale“).  In other words, one might describe it as a Latinate antonym of “Westerner,” a term which Europeans and Americans take little offense at. Of course, etymology little influences our politeness norms.

I distinctly remember older teachers in my childhood using “oriental,” and just as distinctly remember my father chastising me for using it to describe a Chinese restaurant on Cape Cod. Since then, I’ve never questioned its offensiveness, yet it’s tricky to describe why. Note, then, this explanation from Wikipedia’s entry on the term:

John Kuo Wei Tchen, director of the Asian/Pacific/American Studies Program and Institute at New York University, said the basic critique of the term developed in the 1970s. Tchen has said, “With the anti-war movement in the ’60s and early ’70s, many Asian Americans identified the term ‘’Oriental’’ with a Western process of racializing Asians as forever opposite ‘others’.”

So it seems that with the “politically correct” movement in late-20th-Century academia, “oriental” may have been purged along with once-euphemistic terms like “retarded” and “handicapped.” With respect to Tchen, however, I find the word more creepily fetishistic than disparaging. In my opinion, its patronizing quality makes a more compelling argument for its offensiveness. Indeed, when New York State decided to ban the term from official state documents in 2009, Howard University’s Frank H. Wu defended the action on such grounds:

[Wu] said that the term was associated with exoticism and with old stereotypes of geisha girls and emasculated men. “‘Oriental’ is like the word ‘negro.’ It conjures up an era.”

The “Negro” comparison seems apt. “Negro” causes less offense than its vicious cousin, but we nevertheless associate it with eras of racist condescension. Both also notably derive from latinate versions of everyday words (“black” and “Eastern”), giving them an unnatural, old-fashioned ring. At least that’s my impression; I’ve heard both used unselfconsciously over the past decade, so not everyone finds them as cringeworthy.

Although it seems “oriental” still enjoys some currency in the UK, I’m less clear on its status beyond the US. Is there any part of the Anglophone world where “oriental” is completely okay? Or is doomed to the dustbin of English history?


About Ben

Ben T. Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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39 Responses to “Oriental:” Death of a Semi-Slur

  1. AL says:

    I’m Asian American, and I find this post to be pretty accurate. I’ve never been able to put a finger on why the term oriental makes me mildly uncomfortable — and it is a fairly mild discomfort, unlike with certain other slurs — but the conjuring-up-an-era is a good way to put it.

    I usually only hear the term from older white people, and in almost all cases I don’t think there is any malicious intent.

  2. Istvan Rozanich says:

    I would wager that the reason “oriental” has come to be seen as a pejorative – or at least inappropriate – is precisely because of its etymology. If the word, at root, means Eastern, this implies a worldview that places the United States and Europe at the center of the world geographically, and other regions of the world are are seen from this geo-centric view. Eastern, compared to what/where? If you are in Hawaii, say, Eastern would mean mainland USA. Asian, on the other hand, is less focused on where the “center of the world” is and is a more descriptive term for a particular geographic region of the world.

    • Charles Sullivan says:

      East and West refers to the continent of Eurasia.

    • Kevin White says:

      The reason we consider Asia Eastern is because Europe is technically the center of the world. More specifically Greenwich, England. The international prime meridian is an imaginary line that divides the earth into two hemispheres when looking at it on a map, East and West, and is located in Greenwich (at 0 longitude). It’s the same reason that Europe and the Americas are considered “Western”. It’s not like some self-absorbed Europeans got together and made their town the center of it all. In fact, the observatory there had been studying the determination for longitude for quite some time that when it came time to establish fixed degrees, many countries had already been using Greenwich as a reference point, thus it became internationally accepted.

      • Sam C says:

        Greenwich Mean Time is not why we consider Asia “The East” – Europeans were calling Asia Eastern/Oriental for hundreds of years before we established time zones.

  3. Rodger C says:

    When I was in grad school, the Asian student club was called the Oriental Student Association. But I left grad school the year Edward Said’s book came out. I’ve often heard it said that Orientalism singlehandedly destroyed the respectability of the word “Oriental.” It’s probably more complicated than that, but Said certainly gave it a strong push.

  4. Sam says:

    We had quite a heated debate about this very topic my senior year of college! One friend’s boyfriend made the faux pas (and he was twenty, so no excuses), and our Asian-American friend tore him apart. Her basic arguments follow a little bit of what you mentioned – an old-fashioned exoticism and that “Oriental is a kind of rug, not a kind of person.” Our other friend also brought up that “oriental” originally referred to the “Near East,” at least in French. So if it’s confusing enough that “Asian” connotes East Asians and South Asians, how much more confusing is it to lump in the Turks?

  5. Mike says:

    I didn’t realize “oriental” was a slur. I mean, it’s not “nigger”. Interesting.

  6. Mike says:

    The “Negro” comparison seems apt.

    I’ve never seen “negro” on the front of a soup package 🙂

  7. Kim Stebbins says:

    My grandmother says both Negro (though she pronounces it “Negra”) and Oriental and has no clue that it’s improper (she never use the words disparagingly or maliciously, just matter-of-factly) but she’s 92, so I let her get away with it.

  8. Oriental Avenger says:

    Interesting article! I think like most things it all comes down to the individual and their experiences. I am a hapa Japanese (yes, I know about that word too) in my early 40’s and when I was a youngster described myself as Oriental.
    To me, it’s less offensive than archaic and outdated. *shrug* YMMV.

  9. John Carlos says:

    Both of my parents are from the Philippines and my maternal grandparents are from Hong Kong. All members of my family, including my relatives, regularly use the term “Oriental” to describe someone of East Asian descent if we did not know their specific ethnicity. It never occurred to me that the term could be considered a slur.

  10. Ngamudji says:

    I am not aware of the term being thought offensive in Australia, or even politically incorrect. However, it does sound old-fashioned. These days, we would usually say “Asian”. If used at all, it would be to refer to cultures rather than peoples or individuals. Perhaps someone might use it in contradistinction to “occidental”, which is the corresponding term for the West.

  11. Tom says:

    Well, I think it sounds “old-fashioned” because people have largely stopped using it. And I agree that they stopped using it because of its condescending quality.

    Strange, though, that “Oriental rugs” is still apparently perfectly acceptable. I just don’t see signs or ads for “Asian rugs,” or none that I can recall.

  12. Marc Leavitt says:

    I’ve alway used “eastern” or “far east.” “Oriental” is a word that to me conjures up images of Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu, and I don’t think that’s simply an occident.

  13. Ed says:

    I wasn’t aware that “Oriental” is an ethnic slur in the USA. It does not have this connotation in Britain (to my knowledge), although the word is not often used to describe an ethnic group. We’d usually say “East Asian”.

    As I type, a British politician has been in trouble for using the word “sluts” to describe a group of women. His defence was that he was using it in the old-fashioned sense of untidy women. That’s one of the most bizarre excuses I’ve ever heard, although it makes me think about how some words become rude and forbidden.

    • Ellen K. says:

      I don’t think it is a slur. Note the headline says “semi-slur”, not slur. And the actual post does not use the term “slur” at all.

      As the original post says, negro is a good comparision, another would which I would not call a slur though perhaps “semi-slur” could apply.

  14. Toni Hargis says:

    In part, I think “Oriental” is no longer PC because of its association with the British Empire. It’s an old-fashioned British English word used for the natives that expats lived with in the far flung corners of the Empire. It’s almost like calling African countries by their “old” names – Rhodesia, etc.

  15. John Mclaine says:

    “Oriental” is one of those things that are considered politically incorrect just because it is, or at least I’ve always thought. From everything I’ve read, including the comments here, there doesn’t seem to be any reason not to believe that the “objectification” argument came as an effect of it being labeled a slur – not a cause.

    Due to the growing discussions about “white priviledge” and the “fetishizing” of various demographic groups through language, it would be interesting to study to what extent the supposedly “dehumanizing” connotations of these words is from how they are legitimately used to objectify their subjects, and how much is simply due to preexisting labels of those words as “dated” or “offensive.”

    For example, is “colored” racist “person of color” not because the first word marginalizes blacks in a way the second word doesn’t, or simply because we have been raised to think of one word as racist and not the other?

  16. Michael Newman says:

    Every group has the right to decide on what they should be called once a consensus develops (It is notably present with Asian vs. Oriental and absent with Hispanic vs. Latino and even if you think about it White vs. Caucasian vs. Anglo). The reasons are always going to be arbitrary because of the nature of language except of course when a word develops as a slur and so carries racist baggage.

    So it is easy to construct an argument against Asian too because the notion of Asia as a continent is itself Eurocentric. It is just no one has bothered to do so. Yet I can’t get too superior about these semantic games because I have this visceral reaction to being considered “Anglo.” I just find it euphemistic and associated with a British heritage I don’t identify with.

    Also, on another point “asiatico” has largely replaced “oriental” in Peninsular Spanish. (Here’s another pet peeve, I can’t abide Castilian Spanish when in Spanish castellano is a synonym for español)

  17. Sidney Wood says:

    There’s no logic in this. People make a slur of one word but not of some other, depending on their hates of the moment.

    There are other examples too. “Eskimo” and “Lapp” started off as pejoratives, and still are for some.

    As to “slut”, see what http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slut has to say about its Germanic origins and various meanings over the centuries. There’s a place name in Cornwall, England: Slutscombe, derived from Saint Iltut’s Combe (valley), i.e. a quite harmless origin, a quiet mining hamlet near Chacewater. The name was still in use in the censuses and on the first Ordnance Survey maps during the early 19thc. Then it was dropped.

  18. Miguel says:

    As per usual the white liberals will find something to be offended about on behalf of another group that really doesn’t care. When America is no longer absolutely obsessed with race it will be a great leap forward.

  19. My wife’s family (Chinese/Vietnamese) own both a food store and a restaurant in London’s Islington area. Once the name had been chosen (“Thai-An”, from the names of the owners), we needed a description to ensure that people would know what to expect. We chose (for the food store) “Oriental food store and take-away” and for the restaurant “Specialising in Authentic Oriental Cuisine”. In neither case did any member of my wife’s (very extended) family express any reservations over the use of the adjective “Oriental”; to all of us, it summed up exactly what we wanted to say — not (just) Vietnamese, not (just) Chinese, but also Thai, Malay, Korean, …

    Philip Taylor

    • Pac says:

      Maybe they are unaware of what it connotes and the era it comes from. I’m Asian and visit many Asian restaurants and now a days I can’t even recall anything that uses the word “Oriental” in restaurant names. Most times it’s specific because there are many different types of Asian food. Thai, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Indian etc..

  20. Sweetness_OfTheMists says:

    I’m from Britain and wasn’t aware that this word is considered offensive.

    And last week, I went to buy stuff from a large East Asian supermarket in the city I live in, and came home with some goods from it in a free carrier bag from there which had printed on it, “for all your oriental food needs”. I remember this because I remember thinking it was appropriate. I wish I’d kept the bag, so I could upload a photo of it.

    So if it is considered un pc here, I would say it’s only just beginning to be so, if even an East Asian goods shop uses it on their free carrier bags.

  21. Sweetness_OfTheMists says:

    p.s. I just happened to come across a carrier bag at home just now, from a different East Asian store, which has “Hang Won Hong … oriental supermarket” printed on it. Here is a photo of it – sorry it’s mobile phone so not very good quality:


  22. Sweetness_OfTheMists says:

    not meaning to labour the point, but this is one of my photos on Flickr I just noticed also, (it is of a packet of instant noodles from a local discount food store, described as “authentic oriental noodles” on the front):


  23. James Lee says:

    I am a Korean-American in Korea. This is my opinion. Most US English dictionaries say Oriental is offensive at least when referring to people, and I think we should go with what the dictionary says. For those of you who know Korean or some other East Asian language, the Korean word Dong-yang-in(which is toyojin in Japanese) should be translated “Easterner” which is the semantic opposite of Westerner. The semantic opposite of Oriental is Occidental, but the term is never used(although it is certainly not offensive). So I think it makes more sense linguistically to use “Easterner” than “Oriental.”

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  26. terri brugh says:

    I was somewhat dumbfounded when I was corrected for using the term “oriental”being told that Asian is the correct term. I had never heard that before and felt embarrassed but surely never meant it in a derogatory way. These days it seems the less you say the better as to not offend anyone.

  27. Brandon B. says:

    I’ll start by saying I’m Visayan and Portuguese. The Visayayas are a string of islands of part of what we now call King Philip- Phillip-ines. So to address the issue of “Oriental”/”Asian” I’ll start by saying that my words may not hold as much importance to the people who take pride in being identified as “Asian” since the Philipines actually isn’t part of “asia” That label is yet another affectation. Ask a Chinese person near the Phillipine sea, or parties of the reovolutions against Chinese and Spanish occupancy and monopoly. We are their neighbor, Guam and several other Pacific Islands are just as close. …this all does relate to the subject : geographic reference (non reality) versus ethnicity and its relation to fetishishizing and the worst offense – socially accepted racial slurs born of ignorant associations.
    For those who don’t know, there are 51 plus countries and territories that make up Asia, the majority of which are not in the same genetic listing/pool with those calling themselves and being called asian as an ethnic term. These include Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Russia, Iran, Pakistan, Cyprus, India, kazakhstan, ..to name a very few. To me, both Asian and Oriental are racist lazy poor uses of words. There is no reason Not to call an ethicity by its name. To bundle and slur and now even by the actual people themselves is possibly more alive and well today than it was hundreds and hundreds of years ago ESPECIALLY in America. “Asian” is the new “colored” or “chinaman” or slant-eyed. I recently heard African Americans say “chinaman food” referring to a food court that had “asian” food if you will, and a white teenager saying chinese when talking about a Japanaese store with a convenient “whatever, same thing” upon being corrected. If someone had said “negroid food” near them referring to fried chicken and watermelon or saying “cracker white people restaurant” in a mixed crowd, it would not get ignored. The point is, “asian” is the soft slur , a generalization accepted just because it seems to cover a broader section of people in a more vague way which sounds worse to me. I’m not sure why it is that “the A word” (as i call it) grouping is so popular . The point is, “asian” is just another slur that has not only been accepted and digested but encouraged and officiated by the same people who would be offended if you told them they were genetically the same or even just related to the others under the same race header.

    Lets call it like it is, almost no one says “asian” in a geographic only context. It is used to make reference to a section of people that are percieved to all be of a slimmer slanted eyed persuasion with straight hair that eat rice and soy products which has become a socially acceptable reason to decide that those are all evidence of genetic relation which is quite offensive to me, even as an Austronesian/ South Pacific Islander / Malayo Polynesian. The relation it has to me /us is that our people had been taught to call themselves oriental then later asian. It has become a status symbol in the “Philipines to be called “asian”- of the whiter neighbors blood instead of what we started as and for most of us, still the majority of our genetic make up- Malayo Polynesian/proto Polynesian. So, How about let’s all respect ourselves and eachother instead, and just be representative of what we really are. I vote be chinese,Korean, English, Thai, or an organization of “North East Asia” …not “Associations of Asians” I mean, might as well call yourselves Rice and bamboo race Association. People dont’t need permission to be who they are anymore, nor do they need to change their names for the ignorant to pronounce. Sound familiar?…Same issue.

  28. jimbo says:

    I grew up in a house with an adopted oriental sister. At some point in the early 90’s she became Asian.

  29. Stephen Brooks says:

    I, being a man of many words, I speak them you know; am fascinated as to how words change their meaning over time. I am a man of a certain age, that phrase ‘certain age’ implies that I’m old, I’m not, I’m elderly. D’ya see where I’m going with this? Good because I don’t. When I joined an Asian dating site, just for research you understand not because I’m a lonely sad old fart. I wondered why they kept sending me images of Oriental women beautiful though they were. But the problem with Chinky Chonks is that they have no tits, and I’m not dating a woman with smaller tits than me! I bet American’s ironyometers are going berserk at this. In the words of that famous film Cool Hand Luke “what we have here is a failure to communicate.” Or – miscommunicate. If the Scotch people decide to vote for independence today, will the countries that are left be called the DUK? The Disunited Kingdom. Why’s it called a Kingdom anyway? We have a Queen – Elton John.

  30. Bezerkus says:

    I am 44 years old living in the Pacific Northwest, college educated. My sister was adopted from Korea. I feel completely mis-informed. My sister uses this word to describe herself and I have used it for years to describe her in general (apparently offending people without knowing it). I thought is was no different than saying she was European or people saying we are westerners. With all the uses to describe rugs, restaurants, and even food aisles, I always thought this was a very politically correct term to describe East Asians and I even held it in higher regard. Googleing images for Oriental you never get images that are deragatory only images like this http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-Wc7pDWT2fo8/UDNj4WMhtUI/AAAAAAAAAPk/NReiQ-JZl_w/s1600/kiko-lavish-oriental.jpg
    The word seemed so beautiful and exotic to me that it is what it conjured in my mind.
    I guess I’ll just go back to stating she was adopted from Korea, as these other “politically correct” terms sound more racist to me.

    • Sam C says:

      Why *not* just say she’s adopted from Korea/born in Korea? It’s a recognizable country to most people in America & Canada (I doubt few would hear that and have to ask what continent Korea’s in), & more accurate than saying “Oriental” or “East Asian” anyway. I’m of the opinion that it would be weird to say that your sister’s “from the Orient,” so referring to her as “Oriental” is similarly strange.
      The foreign food aisle in all of the grocery stores around me (MidAtlantic) *definitely* say Asian on the aisle signs, by the way. I’d be taken aback to see Oriental listed there.

      • Bezerkus says:

        I agree, I don’t think I’ll ever use Asian to describe her very often and I usually say “born in Korea”. There are times in certain conversations when it was more appropriate to use a more general term in the context of the conversation. I just thought Oriental was more exotic and sounded better than Asian. I guess I use those terms so rarely as she is just my sister and we are American. I seem to only use them when some sort of talk about race was involved. I’m sure “Asian” needs to be used when describing how someone looks when absolutely needed (like in a robbery), such as short, fat, bald, tall, big ears, blonde, red hair, big nose, etc.. I’m sure I would be offended with how I would be described in that circumstance. I know growing up, the aisles said Oriental as I worked in a grocery store in the 80’s and many foods and companies still use the name (Oriental Trading Company). I would think if it was that un pc they’d just stop using it all together. I don’t think I’ve noticed in the last 10-15 years that they changed it to be PC which I’m sure they did.
        I noticed my grocery aisle still says Crackers. 😉

  31. Pac wrote : “Maybe they are unaware of what it connotes and the era it comes from”. Neither they nor I believe it “connotes” anything; it simply means “of or pertaining to the Orient”, which perfectly describes the nature of their supermarket. As to era, the OED has it as attested since 1425 with the meaning ascribed, and gives no indication whatsoever that one should be cautious in its use, with which I completely agree.