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The Orient is a term which means "the East". It is a traditional designation for anything belonging to the Orient or Far East. In English it is a metonym describing Eastern Asia. It was also used to indicate the eastern direction in historical astronomy as the adjective Oriental.


The term "Orient" is derived from the Latin word oriens meaning "east" (lit. "rising" orior "rise"). The use of the word for "rising" to refer to the east (where the sun rises) has analogs from many languages: compare the terms "Levant" ( French levant "rising"), "Anatoliamarker" ( Greek anatole), "mizrahi" in Hebrew ("zriha" meaning sunrise), "sharq" ( Arabic yashruq "rise", shurooq "rising") and "The Land of the Rising Sunmarker" to refer to Japanmarker.

The opposite term "Occident" is derived from the Latin word occidens meaning "west" (lit. "setting" "occido" "fall/set"). This term was once used to describe the West (where the sun sets) but is falling into disuse in English.

Usage of term

In time, the common understanding of 'the Orient' has continually shifted eastwards; as Europe learned of countries farther East, the defined limit of 'the Orient' shifted eastwards, until it reached the Pacific Ocean, in what Westerners came to call 'the Far East'.

The term Orient particularly included regions that used to be known as Persia, Mesopotamia, Asia Minormarker, and Egyptmarker. As awareness of other Asian countries grew in European consciousness, the term often came to mean South Asia, Southeast Asia or East Asia. By the late 19th century, the term usually referred to Chinamarker, Japanmarker, Koreamarker and surrounding nations while the British colonists frequently used it when speaking of Indiamarker. Remnants of the older conception of the Orient still exist in the English language in such collocations as Oriental studies (now largely replaced by Asian studies), Oriental rug and Oriental harem. It has taken on a specific usage since the publication of Edward Said's influential book, "Orientalism" (1980).

The adjectival term Oriental has been used by the West as a term to describe cultures, peoples, countries, and goods from the Orient. "Oriental" means generally "eastern". It is a traditional designation (especially when capitalized) for anything belonging to the Orient or "East" (for Asia), and especially of its Eastern culture. It was also used to indicate the eastern direction in historical astronomy, often abbreviated "Ori". Oriental is also used as an adjective akin to "eastern", especially in the Spanish-speaking world. For example, the Philippinemarker islands of Mindoromarker and Negrosmarker are each divided into two provinces whose titles include the words "oriental" and "occidental" respectively. The official name of Uruguaymarker is the Rep├║blica Oriental del Uruguay or Oriental Republic of Uruguay because it is east of the Uruguay River.

Perceptions and connotations

An important factor in the usage of 'Oriental', regardless of perceptions of pejorativeness, is that it collectively refers to cultural, ethnic and national groupings of people who do not necessarily identify themselves as associated, and hence can lead to inaccurate assumptions about similarity.

American English

While a small number of reference works used in the United States describe Oriental as pejorative, antiquated or offensive in some instances, the American Heritage Book of English Usage notes that
It is worth remembering, though, that Oriental is not an ethnic slur to be avoided in all situations. It is most objectionable in contemporary contexts and when used as a noun, as in the appointment of an Oriental to head the commission. In these cases Asian (or a more specific term such as Vietnamese, Korean, or Asian American, if appropriate) is the only acceptable term. But in certain historical contexts, or when its exotic connotations are integral to the topic, Oriental remains a useful term.
Random House's Guide to Sensitive Language states "Other words (e.g., Oriental, colored) are outdated or inaccurate." This Guide to Sensitive Language suggests the use of "Asian or more specific designation such as Pacific Islander, Chinese American, [or] Korean." Merriam-Webster describes the term as "sometimes offensive," Encarta states when the term is used as a noun it is considered "a highly offensive term for somebody from East Asia."

British English

In British English, the term Oriental is usually used to describe Eastern Asian people of Chinese/Japanese/Korean descent and some Southeastern Asian groups such as Vietnamese, whereas the term Asian generally describes the people or descendants of people from the Middle East or the Indian Subcontinent and its surrounding countries. (These latter people are called South Asians in the United States.)

Australian English

In Australian English, the term "Asian" is generally used in reference to people of Chinese, Vietnamese, Koreans and Japanese ethnicity. However, the term is sometimes expanded to include South Asians and other Asians of darker skin tone, also. Usage of the term is chiefly regional and often varies according to personal preference.

For example: Australians generally refer to people of: Korean, Vietnamese, Japanese or Chinese descent as Asian(s) and persons of Indian or Sri Lankan descent by their respective demonym(s).

The word Oriental, in place of Asian, is seldom used in colloquial conversation in Australia.

Canadian English

In Canadian English, like Australian English, the term "Asian" is used most often to refer to people of eastern Asian descent and other similar southeastern groups. It can be expanded, however, such as in colonial times, to include the more southern Asian countries such as India and Sri Lanka , which is quite common, especially in use by South Asians themselves. In modern Canadian usage, according to the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, the term "Oriental" is considered offensive when applied to a person of East Asian ancestry.

See also


  1. Hooke, Robert. 1666. Drawing of Saturn in Philosophical Transactions (Royal Society publication) Volume 1
  2. CIA - The World Factbook - Uruguay
  3. Asian, The American Heritage Book of English Usage
  4. Race, Ethnicity, and National Origin Sensitive Language, Random House
  5. Oriental Merriam-Webster
  6. Oriental, Encarta. Archived 2009-11-01.
  7. Barber, K. (ed.) (2004). The Canadian Oxford Dictionary, Second Edition. Oxford University Press Canada.

References and further reading

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