Last week, Vice President Biden referred to Singapore’s former long-serving prime minister Lee Kuan Yew as the “wisest man in the Orient.” Biden was criticized for saying “Orient,” which is a perfectly innocuous and rather charming word. Unfortunately, it appears that, at some point, someone decided it was racist, and instead of being corrected, he was indulged.
It’s not clear why anyone thinks the words “Orient” and “Oriental” are racist. “Orient,” according to the OED, refers to “that region of the heavens in which the sun and other heavenly bodies rise”; conventionally, it means “east.” Strictly, an Oriental country is a land of the rising sun; idiomatically, it’s a land in East Asia. Presumably, a rising sun is included on certain Oriental flags as a reminder of which adjective the enflagged wish not to be associated with.
In 2002, the state of Washington banned the use in state documents of the adjective “Oriental” to describe people of East Asian extraction. New York followed suit in 2009. Following the New York ban, an “Asian pop columnist” was asked, on NPR, “Why is Oriental such a loaded term? Why do Asian-Americans find it offensive?”
He answered: “Well, you know, I think history really does play a huge role in this. And when you think about it, the term Oriental itself kind of feels freighted with luggage. You know, it’s a term which you can’t think of without having that sort of smell of incense and the sound of a gong kind of in your head.”
So, some people think “Oriental” is racist for the same reason anyone who uses it uses it: It’s poetic, it’s evocative, it has character. People use the word “Orient” for the same reason the Cubs still play at Wrigley Field. It’s the reason Frank Lloyd Wright used the word “Usonian” to replace the bland and imprecise word “American.” “Usonian” never caught on, and now “Oriental” is being choked to death and replaced with the flavorless, meaningless adjective “Asian.” Does “Asian” mean “East Asian,” or does it mean “Russian,” or “East Turkish”? Of course, “Oriental” is pretty broad too — but it’s no broader, culturally, than “Slavic,” is it? Or “Balkan”? Shall we abolish the world “Celtic” and replace it with “European”?
“Orient” is just one member of an unfortunate group: inoffensive words being shunned out of an excess of caution. As you might say someone from Spain is a Spaniard, people have taken to saying someone from China is a “Chinese.” Obviously, that’s incorrect — “Chinese” is an adjective; what you want there is a noun. The noun is “Chinaman,” like “Englishman,” or “Frenchman,” but it has become verboten. “Japanese” is misused in the same way. I’m not sure what the noun is. “Jap” is universally regarded as racist, and I won’t argue that it isn’t — though I’m not sure why it’s more offensive than “Brit” or “Swede” or “Finn.” You wouldn’t say, “He’s a Jewish.”
I am not defending the use of the word “Jap” — it’s not inherently racist, but that’s the convention; it’s too late to save it. I’m not defending offending people for no reason. I am, though, defending the use of the word “Orient.”
It’s not too late for “Orient.” If we tacitly accept the abolition of distinctive words because people mistake their distinctiveness for offensiveness, soon we won’t have any interesting words left. (First they came for “Orient,” and I did not speak out, because I never used “Orient”; then they came for “bagel,” and I did not speak out, because there were no inoffensive nouns or adjectives left.) Anyway, Mr. Biden should be forgiven. Surely, his word choice was occidental.
— Josh Gelernter writes weekly for NRO and is a regular contributor to The Weekly Standard.