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27 June 2012

Self-Definition and What One "Is"

"What are you?" It's hard to imagine a less couth question, and yet, it strikes at the heart of two issues: (a) what is your identity and (b) who gets to decide? I've posted before about how racial terminology and the concept of race itself has shifted over time. What about shifts in ethnic terminology? (Years below in parentheses represent the first recorded use of the term.)

Native American (1872?) / Indian (1553)

Indian is tough because of the overlap with Asian Indian so I use American Indian here. I'm curious about the flip-flop between 1985 and 1991.

Asian (late-1500s) / Oriental (1701)

It's impossible to see above so here is Asian by itself.

The tough thing, of course, with Asian and Oriental is that they can just as easily refer to inanimate objects (e.g. rugs) as they can human beings. Black provides similar problems. Still, use of Oriental is slowly being replaced by Asian.

Latin@ (1946) / Hispanic (c.1972)

I'm curious about the dip in Latino and the corresponding spike in Hispanic in the 1980s.

I'm struck by how what most of us assume are neologisms are often the older of the two terms. Latino for example is older than Hispanic, but increasingly, Latina and Latino are seen as more "politically correct." Asian/Oriental follows the same pattern.

Also worth noting is the perspective and ascription of the terms. Latino, for example, is an endonym, the name used among those to whom the term refers. Hispanic (literally "Spanish-speaking"), on the other hand, is an exonym, a name imposed on those to whom the term refers. After all, one's language is not a designation that would help those who already know they speak the same language. Oriental (literally "of the east") is an exonym, too. East of what? Oriental only makes sense from the perspective of those in the (relative) West.

More on all of this later.

Etymological information taken from the Online Etymology Dictionary, an absolutely wonderful resource.

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