AskDefine | Define oriental

Dictionary Definition

oriental adj : denoting or characteristic of the biogeographic region including southern Asia and the Malay Archipelago as far as the Philippines and Borneo and Java; "Oriental politeness"; "for people of South and East Asian ancestry the term `Asian' is preferred to `Oriental'"; "Asian ancestry" [syn: Asian] n : a member of an Oriental race [syn: oriental person]

User Contributed Dictionary



Latin oriens east


oriental (less commonly Oriental)
  1. of or relating to the Orient or Asia, but most commonly to the Far East.
    Note: this term is considered objectionable in American English.
  2. (zoölogy), capitalized: a zoögeographical region of southeast Asia.
  3. relating to orient lustre in a pearl


of or relating to the Orient or Asia, but most commonly to the Far East


oriental (pl. orientals)
  1. A person from the Orient, or with ancestry from the Orient.
    Note: this term is considered objectionable in American English.


person from the Orient

Usage notes

The term "oriental", with connotations of exoticism, at one time referred to the people, culture, and nations of the Near East. More recently it has been used more to refer generically to the people, culture, and nations of the Far East. Even more recently, in some places it has come to be considered objectionable or offensive, particularly in its noun form. While "the Orient" has become a somewhat dated term, "oriental", particularly as an adjective, still sees frequent use.
One complaint has been its frequent use by some to denigrate Asian people and people of Asian descent, which many feel has given the word itself a bad connotation. Others object to the term being used as a blanket term for people of Asian or East Asian descent, since that ignores the varied and often disparate cultures and histories of that area, thus emphasizing the sameness or indistinguishability of those cultures and peoples (and in reverse, imputing on the user a lack of awareness and concern for the cultural difference within Asia). A third reason given is that the term is so a vague that it is never clear which countries are included within the term. Most users, however, do not employ the term with any malicious intent whatsoever, and view it as a convenient and innocent generic term in the absence of more precise information.
Major objections to the term are fairly recent, and so it still sees frequent use, often by people unaware that objections to it exist. As awareness of the cultures in Asia has increased, its usage has decreased. Its occasional replacements, such as "Asian" and "East Asian", can also be seen as offensive by others. It can still be found in the mainstream media, though less frequently than in decades past. When used to describe Asian foods and other products, it raises fewer objections, and this remains one of the most acceptable ways of using the term. The atmosphere of sensitivity surrounding "oriental" suggests that it should be used with caution.





  1. eastern
  2. Oriental


Extensive Definition

The "Orient" is a term which simply means the "East". It originated in Western Asia to describe that part of the world. It is now, incorrectly, used in the Western world to describe Eastern Asia.
To describe a person as oriental has been considered somewhat impolite and politically incorrect in the United States (the term Asian is now widely used), but the term Oriental does not carry any such connotations in the UK, where the word Asian commonly refers to people of Indian/Bangladeshi/Pakistani/Sri Lankan descent (these people are called South Asians in the United States).


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"), "Anatolia" (< Greek anatole), "mizrahi" in Hebrew ("zriha" meaning sunrise) and "The Land of the Rising Sun" to refer to Japan.
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.

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'.
Initially, the "Orient" referred primarily to the cultures and countries of what are now considered the Middle East. For example the Three Kings of the Orient in Christianity were not from China, Japan etc. This particularly included regions that used to be known as Persia, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, and Egypt. 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 China, Japan, Korea and surrounding nations while the British colonists frequently used it when speaking of India. 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).
"Oriental" has been used by the West as a term to describe cultures, countries, peoples and goods from the Orient. Oriental is also used as an adjective akin to "eastern", especially in the Spanish-speaking world. For example, the Philippine island Mindoro is divided into two provinces whose titles include the words "oriental" and "occidental" respectively. The official name of Uruguay is the República Oriental del Uruguay or Oriental Republic of Uruguay because it is east of the Río de la Plata.

Perceptions and connotations

North American English

Controversy surrounds connotations of the term in American English. (See also American and British English differences.) According to Abdurrahman R. Squires, "politically correct terms have taken the place of the word 'Orientalism'".
While a 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"
Efforts are underway in Canada to have the term viewed as offensive. For many, there exists a confusion as to why the term is offensive.
The popular American musical Avenue Q includes an explicit reference to the current status of the word in the song "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist." In the musical, the character Brian, after angering his wife by referring to her as Oriental, is admonished "Brian, buddy, where ya been? The term is Asian-American!"

British English

In British English, the terms "Asian" (noun or adjective) and "British Asian" (noun), when used in reference to people, usually refer to South Asian peoples - especially the ethnic groups of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The term "oriental" is used without any pejorative connotations to describe one of East Asian extraction. The alternative is usually to use "Far Eastern", or refer to the specific country from which an individual or family may have originated, if this is known.


References and further reading

oriental in Aragonese: Orient
oriental in Bosnian: Orijent
oriental in Catalan: Orient
oriental in Czech: Orient
oriental in Danish: Orienten
oriental in German: Orient
oriental in Spanish: Oriente
oriental in French: Orient
oriental in Galician: Oriente
oriental in Dutch: Oosten
oriental in Japanese: オリエント
oriental in Norwegian: Orienten
oriental in Norwegian Nynorsk: Orienten
oriental in Portuguese: Oriente
oriental in Romanian: Oriente
oriental in Slovak: Orient
oriental in Swedish: Orienten
oriental in Chinese: 东洋

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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