The word Asian is defined as:

  1. adjective
    of, belonging to, or characteristic of Asia or its inhabitants.


  1. noun
    a native or inhabitant of Asia, or a person of Asian descent.

But typically when we use the word Asian we don’t use it to refer countries in the Middle Eastern, such as Israel and Jordan but associate it with East Asians or South East Asians such as Indians, Koreans etc.

My research says this:

Asian is the most commonly used term referring to people in or from Asia, especially East Asia.

In American English, Oriental as a noun or adjective applied to people is outdated and has become a sensitive term to be avoided. It is associated with a bygone era in which Asians had subordinate status and their culture was perceived as strange and exotic. Also, the origin of the term Oriental represents a Eurocentric view of geography, since the Orient, or East, is east of Europe. However, Oriental is a neutral, inoffensive term when used as an adjective describing Asian culture or things from Asia.

Similarly, the term Asiatic is usually offensive when referring to people, but neutral when referring to Asian culture, animals, etc. Though Asian is an acceptable ethnic designation in most contexts, it is best to be as specific as possible, rather than to group all Asians into a single cultural identity.

In general, people of South, Southeast, and East Asian origin prefer to be identified by their country of origin: for example, Indian, Pakistani, Indonesian, Korean, Japanese, or Chinese. The people of the Middle or Near East and Polynesia are not referred to as Asian.

Source: https://www.dictionary.com/browse/asian


In early Classical times, the Greeks started using the term "Asia" to refer to the whole region known today as Anatolia (the peninsula which forms the Asian portion of present-day Turkey). The Roman Empire referred to the entire Lydian region of what is now northeastern Turkey as the province of Asia. Eventually, however, the name had been stretched progressively further east, until it came to encompass the much larger land area with which we associate it today, while the Anatolian Peninsula started being called "Asia Minor" or "The Lesser Asia" instead.

Source: Wikipedia

  1. How did the meaning of “asian” denoting a country or being a resident of a country in the continent in Asia merge to mean that of “oriental” and “asiatic” as above?
  2. Is there a “correct” definition?
  3. I want etymological-based answers here.
  4. Is there a linguistic term for when a single word borrows meanings from other words, like in this case?
  • 2
    As for why we don't use "Asian" for people in the Middle East -- we have "Middle Eastern" for that. As for East Asia vs the rest of Asia, could you clarify how you get that impression? Google Ngrams records more usage of "Asians from India" than "Asians from China".
    – Rosie F
    Commented Jul 25, 2019 at 5:13
  • 1
    @RosieF the origin of the word Asia originates from Anatolia a region in Turkey, a country you would call “Middle Eastern”. According to what I found Asia was only used to refer to this area, until it spread to the East.
    – aesking
    Commented Jul 25, 2019 at 5:16
  • 2
    This could be due to the people's ethnicity, not geographic location. People in Middle East are of Arab descent, that is why they usually are not called Asians. These two articles should give you a lot of information on this subject: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arabs en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asian_people
    – TK-421
    Commented Jul 25, 2019 at 6:17
  • 3
    "People in Middle East are of Arab descent"...read the migration section of the Wiki page on Middle East....no, not necessarily: ethnic Turks, Iranians and Israelis are not ethnically arabs; they are non-Arab middle Eastern countries. They are however subject to migration dynamics in that "a fair proportion of those migrating from Arab nations are from ethnic and religious minorities facing racial and or religious persecution" will often visit these countries and migrate there. Think about Turkey's economical and political situation right now.
    – Jay
    Commented Jul 25, 2019 at 11:44
  • 4
    I feel like there's a difference between British and American English. I often hear people refer to people from the Indian subcontinent as "Asian", but I almost never hear people in the US refer to them as other than "Indian". Commented Aug 5, 2019 at 20:25

3 Answers 3


As your quote from Wikipedia indicates, the extension of the term "Asia" to the current geographical expanse that is thought of as one of the continents of the world happened a long time ago. In current usage, the noun "Asia" refers to a region of the world that includes both the "Middle East" and the "Far East".

There isn't any etymological basis for giving a narrower sense to "Asian", "Asiatic", "Orient" or "Oriental". "Asian" and "Asiatic" are just adjectives built on the same base as the continent name "Asia", and "Orient" and "Oriental" are just derived from a Latin word meaning "east(ern)". All of these terms have been used to refer to nations and peoples of the Middle East as well as those of East Asia and South Asia.

The distinctions in usage and connotation that have developed between these terms are based on social phenomena, not on etymology. There isn't any single "correct" definition of Asia, Asian, Asiatic, Orient or Oriental because all of these terms refer, not to natural categories of prexisting things, but to made-up concepts that people have thought differently about in different times and places.


Etymonline says:

Asian (n.)

late 14c., "inhabitant of Asia (Minor)," from Latin Asianus (adjective and noun, "belonging to the province of Asia;" "an inhabitant of Asia"), from Greek Asianos "Asiatic," from Asia (see Asia). Ousted Asiatic as the preferred term mid-20c.

The term "Asiatic" has come to be regarded with disfavour by those to whom it is applied, and they feel entitled to be brought into line with usage in regard to Europeans, Americans and Australians.
["Times Literary Supplement," Feb. 6, 1953]

As an adjective in English, "of or pertaining to Asia," from 1560s; common from c. 1930.
Related: Asianic (1879).


I think it started with political correctness as you were kind of inferring. We used to say Oriental to indicate someone from the Orient. Meaning people from areas where the peoples are direct decedents of China, like Japan, Taiwan, Korea. For some reason, people started thinking only "things" could be oriental, like rugs and silk. I've always wondered the same thing. What's offensive in calling a person oriental? It's a very useful term that's more inclusive than a single country, but more concise than an entire continent. And everyone always knew exactly who you were referring to. We've PC'ed ourselves into clunky and awkward discourse. It reminds me of the term African-American, which is fine and inoffensive, but it's only useful in America. I think it came on the heels of Native-American, which makes a lot more sense because before that, we were calling them Indians, which of course was completely wrong and required us to say goofy things like "I meant India Indian". Anyway, there are a lot of people who've realized that "African American" only works in one place when they refer to a black person as African American in another country and then get a response like, "What do you mean, I've never even been to America?"

  • 1
    African American as a term came into being because of people who were of African descent and American nationality. Naturally that wouldn't work abroad because they would not be American citizens. If, say you're in France, it would make more sense to call them African French, unless they prefer being called something else. That one would see a black person and immediately think "African American" no matter where in the world they are is a different and separate issue.
    – psosuna
    Commented Aug 5, 2019 at 20:47
  • Welcome, Marcus. When providing an answer that is based primarily on empirical evidence, it helps if you tell everybody where you're from. (In New Jersey, US we call apparent descendants of the Mongoloid race "Asians" because ... etc.)
    – Oldbag
    Commented Aug 6, 2019 at 2:03

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