John Larrysson Column: East and West

This week I will explore a common language problem. Why is the USA a Western country? It is east of China! What exactly do the words Western and Eastern mean? What about Oriental and Occidental?

The tradition of calling a place Western or Eastern comes from the simple description of is it east or west of the place where you are. The starting place has often been either Rome, Constantinople (now: Instanbul) or Jerusalem. Historically, these were all important Western cities.

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When people describe a country as western or eastern Europe it is usually in relation to Rome. When people talk about the world, it is usually in relation to Constantinople. Europe is Western and Asia is Eastern. This description is, of course, rather limited and clumsy.

Vladimir Putin, the current Russia autocrat, is typically not referred to as an Asian or Oriental. By the strict dictionary definition he is both, but old colonial ideas confuse how the word is used. Most people consider Russia to be European as far as the Ural Mountains. Russians and other Slavic people are usually said to be Europeans. Look at Russia on a world map. Turkey, which is just as far east, has been called an Oriental or Asian country (Asia minor).

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The word used to describe the east has been the orient. The word orient originally referred to the rising sun, since the sun rises in the east. The word is from the Latin orientem meaning rising / going up. This history explains why the word orient also means the action of finding your exact location. An orientation (noun) is your location relative to a landmark or compass direction. It is also a metaphor used for a short course that introduces a new situation. To orient (verb) oneself is to find out which way is north or where one is relative to a landmark. Orienteering (gerund) is the sport of finding one's way across the countryside.

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The opposite of orientem is the Latin word occidentem meaning descending / going down, because of course the sun sets in the west. From this word we get the opposite of Orient, which is Occident. The word Occidental is much less common, but here is an example of its use: I am an occidental living in the Orient.

Some people describe the word oriental as impolite. Next week I will explore when it is not appropriate to use the word oriental.

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by John Larrysson

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A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for over two decades.


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