It seems as if a shift occurred and the descriptive "Oriental" was replaced by "Asian" as the accepted term in polite society — what caused this shift?

  • 1
    Perhaps, people were using "orientals" derogatorily which led to other people wanted a non-offensive term.
    – MrHen
    Mar 31, 2011 at 18:51
  • 7
    It's not melioration if a word becomes pejorative: melioration is a process by which a word “grows more positive in connotation or more elevated in meaning”.
    – F'x
    Mar 31, 2011 at 19:09
  • 7
    @nohat: There are uncounted millions, perhaps even billions, of people who go by other guideposts than dictionaries. You have no idea how many people there are who have never heard of the (to them, absurd) notion that “Oriental” is somehow offensive. Asian does not mean the same thing, either. Take a drive through the middle part of the country, and you’ll see. These people are not unkind, and they are not political. They are just regular people, and their grocery sotres have “oriental foods” aisles. To them, “Asian foods” would be unclear — and an affectation.
    – tchrist
    Apr 3, 2011 at 22:55
  • 5
    @nohat: Do you ever get out of the Bay Area? I promise you that there would never be any gasps in Iowa or Wisconsin or Minnesota, and in fact, if one of heard such a gasp we would worry for the gasper’s health! These people are neither ignorant nor insensitive, and it is offensive that you have called them that. They simply do not share your taboos. By your metric, one must call people from Siberia, Omsk, Israel, Palestine, and Tabriz “Asians”, too, even though they would never, ever be called “Oriental”. I’d think all that lumping together of unlike peoples would be considered offensive.
    – tchrist
    Apr 3, 2011 at 23:53
  • 5
    @nohat, just because a word is offensive in one place/setting/society does not automatically make it offensive everywhere. I am neither ignorant nor insensitive when I hold up my hand, palm outwards, to greet a friend, because that is a common greeting where I am. The fact that this gesture is highly offensive in Greece is simply not relevant here. It is actually more offensive that you seem to want to dictate what is and is not offensive in different parts of the US. Sep 3, 2013 at 22:49

6 Answers 6


A possible answer to this, in much more general terms and in a parallel vein to the historical account (which I do think best explains this particular case), is that de-adjectival nouns used to denote ethic groups seem to become pejorative(s).

I'm sure you can all come up with your own examples...



The New Oxford American Dictionary says on this topic:

USAGE: The term Oriental, denoting a person from the Far East, is regarded as offensive by many Asians, esp. Asian Americans. It has many associations with European imperialism in Asia. Therefore, it has an out-of-date feel and tends to be associated with a rather offensive stereotype of the people and their customs as inscrutable and exotic. Asian and more specific terms such as East Asian, Chinese, and Japanese are preferred.

I think it's simply that Oriental implies a Europe-centric view of the world, which is linked to colonialism and imperialism. Thus, it was rejected by the nations it was applied to.

  • 4
    If Westerners had referred to themselves as Occidentals, I wonder if the terms would have stuck. Mar 31, 2011 at 19:35
  • 5
    If one cannot refer to anything as Oriental, then equally one must be forbidden from referring to anything as Western. There are many places where Oriental is the perfectly normal word.
    – tchrist
    Apr 3, 2011 at 17:36
  • @tchrist: The offensiveness of the word stems not from its accuracy, but from its history. I'm guessing the adjective westerner was coined by westerners, whereas the adjective oriental was coined by Europeans to describe people they thought as inferior. Jul 14, 2011 at 21:13
  • 8
    As a Chinese person, I've never been offended by the term "oriental." "Oriental flavored" ramen however, offends me. I mean, what do we taste like?
    – Jin
    Dec 25, 2011 at 8:52

I understand why the term Oriental is derogatory, but my family, who are Japanese-American, have always used the term to differentiate Japanese, Chinese, and Korean cultures, which share some common cultural threads, from other Asian cultures. For example, people from Indian are Asian, but their culture is very different from Japan, China, and Korea. Has anyone else used the term Oriental as such?

  • Although technically Indians would also be considered 'Asians', in general usage I have noticed when used in the West, 'Asians' usually means the same as Orientals while other groups such as Indians are referred to as Indians. Mar 31, 2011 at 20:16
  • 3
    Interesting. When I was in England on vacation, I noticed that people used the term Asian to refer to people from India and Pakistani, and did not really associate the term with people further east. I think there is a lot of variability with the term Asian, so having a second term Oriental to refer to China, Japan, and Korea would be beneficial. Of course, I cannot change people's opinion about the word.
    – Ethan
    Mar 31, 2011 at 20:31
  • 1
    "Asian" indeed has different meanings in US vs. UK English. Ankur gives the US version and Ethan the UK version.
    – Charles
    Mar 31, 2011 at 20:49
  • 3
    @z7sg, 'Oriental' carries no pejorative tone in the UK; it is used in the same way people might refer to nations or peoples as 'Western'. While you're right, Asian denotes people from all over Asia, in the UK it is used almost exclusively for people from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, etc., since that is where the majority of Britain's Asian immigrants are from.
    – gpr
    Mar 31, 2011 at 23:38
  • 2
    Oriental is not pejorative in the American Midwest. It is perfectly customary.
    – tchrist
    Apr 3, 2011 at 17:36

To supplement the other good answers here, I did an Ngram of Oriental, Asiatic, and Asian to provide a timeline of the various terms' use in print:

Ngram: "Oriental," "Asiatic," "Asian." English Corpus. 1800-2000

As you can see, the use of Asian increased dramatically starting in the late 1940s. One guess as to the reason is the use of Pacific-Asian Theater in popular media to define the non-European areas of WWII operations.

Also of note, former UCLA historian, Yuji Ichioka, is credited with coining the term Asian-American in the late 60s while at UC Berkeley.

Ichioka coined the term "Asian American" to frame a new self-defining political lexicon. Before that, people of Asian ancestry were generally called Oriental or Asiatic.


Of course, as you can see from the graph, Asian has been in use as long as the other terms, but developments such as the trend toward immigrant groups naming themselves by their ancestry has definitely hastened the move away from imperialistic language.

  • 4
    Is talking about Westerners somehow “imperialist”? Of course not. People are just inventing offence where none is meant, or merited.
    – tchrist
    Apr 3, 2011 at 17:38
  • 4
    @tchrist: I understand and share your distaste for PC fundamentalism, but I think the phenomenon of different demographics choosing names for themselves rather than accepting traditional names given by others outside that particular nationality or group is a nuanced and important process. It seems to me that the main motivation behind it is not to castigate those who stick to the old names, but to nudge all towards a greater understanding of the group's history, sense of place, and internal differences. In short, to see them as a collection of humans and not just as an abstraction. Apr 3, 2011 at 19:23
  • 1
    @tchrist: Possibly. But I think it could also be seen as a step away from naming people as simply "from the East" by specifying an actual group of countries. It might be seen as a first step towards more accurately identifying Asians by their specific country of origin and avoiding the Hank Hill syndrome. Apr 3, 2011 at 23:08
  • +1 for employing ngram. I would, however, be careful (methodologically) to include "Asiatic" as I have only seen this word used as an adjective, whereas the other two are nouns. I admit, though, at I may be demonstrably incorrect.
    – msanford
    Apr 5, 2011 at 1:59
  • 2
    @msanford It can be a noun too: amazon.com/Asiatics-Novel-FSG-Classics/dp/0374529248 Nov 20, 2016 at 14:07

Oriental is not considered especially offensive in the UK. It is not the preferred term for a person of Asian origin or descent, but it is not one that is universally avoided.

I should add that in the UK "Asian" almost exclusively refers to South Asian (but not Indo-Chinese) origin, unless the context requires otherwise.

In any case, the term "Asian" ought not to be used as anything other than a strictly geographic descriptor, given the cultural and geographical diversity found within Asia - if you were to try to group the various countries or nations into groups that are tolerably similar to each other (a) you would have at the very minimum three groups (b) almost everyone falling under such a grouping would object to the grouping.


Perhaps it was caused by Edward Said's book Orientalism. I don't know when exactly the shift occurred as the term seems to have been out of favour for quite some time. Although, according to wikipedia, the US Senate only decided it was inappropriate for official use in 2002.

  • 3
    And yet, we still have Oriental carpets.
    – ChrisO
    Mar 31, 2011 at 20:56
  • 3
    Yes, and I'll give them up when they prise them from my cold dead hands.
    – z7sg Ѫ
    Mar 31, 2011 at 21:15
  • Orientalism in this case refers to the middle east, not e.g. Japan. In fine art, one would never refer to an Asian work of art nor a European depiction of Asians as Orientalist: they are typically characterized by north african subject matter (and often including a European woman naked, holding a snake)
    – horatio
    Mar 31, 2011 at 21:25