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I know there is a related question here, but I am not seeing an answer to "Why is there a difference?" Merely that an explanation of what is used in each country.

I am a speaker of American English, and I understand why the British refer to people from India as Asians. This is quite sensible given that the Indian subcontinent is located in Asia.

But, we in America use Asian only to refer to people from the Far East. (i.e. China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Laos, etc.) We completely exclude all people from Asia Minor, the Indian Subcontinent, etc.

And, I'm given to understand that the British and many other countries use Orientals to refer to the folks we refer to as Asian. In America, this term is only applied to inanimate objects, and is considered rather offensive to be applied to a person (since the rise of the PC movement in the late 1980s, in any case.)

Historically, Istanbul was considered the Orient (therefore the Orient Express). So, why is this term applied to people of the Far East, instead of the Near East?

Can anyone point out the reason for the divergence in terminology? Or is this yet another case of two nations separated by a common language?

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As a proud American, I can assure you, it has something to do with my, and my fellows, being a wilfully ignorant, proud people. – miercoledi Feb 25 '14 at 4:41
I, too, am a proud American, sir. And, when I'm not barbecuing bald eagle on the tailgate of my Hummer, I wonder about things like this! – David M Feb 25 '14 at 4:52
This question appears to be off-topic because it is not about the English language. – Kris Feb 25 '14 at 6:13
@Kris In what way is this not about the English language? I'm asking about the usage in the English language. Specifically, the different usages between two separate dialects. – David M Feb 25 '14 at 6:16
Have you researched? The answer can be found outside the domains of language. – Kris Feb 25 '14 at 6:17
up vote 9 down vote accepted

I suspect that the answer is that, for historical reasons, there are a large number of people of South Asian origin in the UK and many fewer of any other sort of Asian origin.

4.9% of the population in the 2011 census described their ethnicity as "Asian or Asian British" and chose the subcategory Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi, and a further 1.4% chose "Other Asian" (there is a separate category for Chinese, 0.7%). Many South Asians identify as Other Asian and not with any particular South Asian country (particularly common among Muslims who, or whose ancestors, immigrated from what is now India), so it's fair to conclude that ~5% of the UK population is South Asian and only 1-2% are any other sort of Asian.

The US race question in the 2010 census is different from the UK ethnic-origin question, but the overall Asian-American population is 4.8%. I could not find a breakdown, but Chinese and Filipino-origin Asian-Americans are the most established and largest communities.

"Asian" has come to be used to refer to the prototypical Asian in both countries - which is a South-Asian origin in Britain and an East Asian origin in the US.

British people, incidentally, are much less likely to use "Oriental" to refer to East Asians than we were in the 1980s, because we've absorbed the sense that it's offensive from American media. We might use it if fishing for a term - "East Asian" is not a category that comes to mind because it's not one that Brits deal with much, and the overwhelming majority in the UK are Chinese (ethnically; many Chinese in the UK immigrated from Chinese-minority communities in former British colonies in South-East Asia).

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The U.S. 2010 Census showed the three largest Asian groups were: 1.3% Chinese, 1.1% Filipino, 1% Asian Indian. – Peter Shor Feb 26 '14 at 12:10
Thanks, Peter - I couldn't find that breakdown. Is Japanese a large group? – Richard Gadsden Feb 26 '14 at 12:14
The webpage I found just listed the largest three, so I don't know. – Peter Shor Feb 26 '14 at 12:40
That's about as good an answer as any! Thanks! – David M Feb 26 '14 at 13:03

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