Wednesday, April 25, 2012
The word orient is derived from Latin for place of rising, like the sun. That means, basically, the east. Occident, then, is the opposite, also derived from Latin and meaning the opposite. But east and west from what perspective? Europe’s, of course.
“The Orient” was originally the easternmost parts of the Roman Empire, from the Balkans east. This meaning lives on in the name “Oriental Rug” which is as likely to be Turkish, Iranian (Persian) or Arab as East or South Asian. Over time, the geographic perception of The Orient shifted eastward to East Asia.
The Occident, on the other hand, had no specific geographic location, and still doesn’t. Strangely, this makes sense: When people talk about “The West”, they don’t merely mean Western Europe, or that plus the Americas—the Western Hemisphere. Instead, they mean countries associated with or descended from Europe, and that includes Australia and New Zealand, both of which are in the Eastern Hemisphere.
Just as The Occident has all but disappeared from English, so, too, The Orient has faded, aided, in my opinion, by its often racist connotation. Nowadays, the term most likely to be used by newsmedia, for example, is “The Far East”. That phrase really annoys me.
New Zealand and Australia are closer, longitudinally speaking, to Japan and China than we are to London, and we’re part of “The West”. From our perspective, “The Far East” is more like “The Near West”, and that’s why the phrase annoys me so much: It’s London-centric (the BBC is one of the main users of the phrase “The Far East”), and to me it conjures up images of Kipling, Empire and “the white man’s burden”. That’s why I prefer “East Asia” to “The Far East”: It’s accurate, from our earthbound perspective, but it doesn’t suggest any one position on earth is inherently superior to another.
“Earthbound” is really the key to all this: There’s no “correct” way to view the earth from space: Up can be down and vice versa. So, in a sense, east and west are not just relative, they’re pretty meaningless.
Still, we live on this planet, and we perceive things in terms of east and west, north and south. Even so, it’s easy enough to be accurate, to refer to places relative to their place on the globe, not relative to the perspective of one particular place or region.
Using accurate geographic descriptors is no—ahem!—occident.
Among many other things, occidental can refer to Occidental, a “Belgian Beer Café” located in Vulcan Lane in Auckland, originally a hotel built in 1870 by an American sailor. Or, it could refer to The Occidental in Wellington, which bills itself as “Wellington's original Monteiths Craft Bar”.
The image at top is Ptolemy's World Map (1467), now in the public domain.