Understanding the Shift from Oriental to Asian in Modern Language

Skylar Hawthorne

Updated Saturday, June 1, 2024 at 8:35 AM CDT

Understanding the Shift from Oriental to Asian in Modern Language

Historical Context of the Term "Oriental"

The term "Oriental" has a long and complicated history, particularly in the United States. Originally derived from the Latin word "orientalis," meaning "eastern," it was used to describe anything from the Eastern world. However, over time, it became a term loaded with racial and colonial connotations. During periods like the Yellow Scare, "Oriental" was often used in a derogatory manner to describe people of Asian descent, contributing to its negative connotations today.

In contemporary polite society, "Oriental" is generally avoided when referring to people. Instead, "Asian" is used as it is considered more respectful and accurate. This shift reflects broader societal changes towards more inclusive and respectful language, aiming to move away from terms that have historically been used in a discriminatory context.

Oriental in Art and Culture

While the term "Oriental" is largely considered outdated and offensive when used to describe people, it still finds usage in specific contexts, particularly in art history. In this field, "Oriental" is used to describe Asian-inspired art created by non-Asians. Many art museums continue to use the term to classify collections that include both Asian-made pieces and those inspired by Asian art.

This usage highlights the term's Eurocentric origins, indicating how Western perspectives have historically categorized and exoticized Asian cultures. Despite its continued use in art history, the term is best avoided in most other contexts due to its historical baggage and potential to offend.

The Decline and Persistence of "Oriental"

The use of the term "Oriental" has significantly declined over the past 20 years, reflecting a broader societal shift towards more respectful language. However, it is still seen in certain contexts, such as grocery stores, where products might be labeled as "Oriental" flavor or style. This persistence indicates that while the term is fading, it has not entirely disappeared from everyday usage.

Interestingly, while "Oriental" has fallen out of favor, its counterpart "Occidental," meaning Western, is rarely used and does not carry the same offensive connotations. This disparity underscores the unique historical and racial implications tied to the term "Oriental."

Cultural Shifts and Language Evolution

The shift from "Oriental" to "Asian" in describing people is a reflection of broader cultural shifts towards more respectful and inclusive language. This change is influenced by an increased awareness of the historical baggage associated with certain terms and a desire to avoid perpetuating stereotypes and racism.

However, the offensive nature of certain words can change over time, influenced by cultural shifts. For example, some older generations, like a 90-year-old grandmother, might still use the term "Oriental" without intending offense, simply because it was the term they grew up with. This highlights the importance of context and the individuals involved in the conversation when considering the appropriateness of certain terms.


The term "Oriental" has a complex history tied to Western colonialism and the exoticization of Asian cultures. While it is still used in certain contexts like art history and grocery stores, its use to describe people is generally avoided due to its historical baggage. The shift towards using "Asian" reflects broader societal changes towards more respectful language, aiming to move away from terms that have been used in a discriminatory context. As language continues to evolve, it is crucial to remain aware of the historical and cultural implications of the words we use.

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