Wednesday, April 25, 2012

O is for Occident

Occident is an “O” word that not many people use any more, even if they use its cousin, Orient, a word I wish people would stop using or, at least, stop using its modern alternative. But that’s getting a bit ahead of the story.

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.

Click the badge above to visit other bloggers taking part in ABC Wednesday—there are a lot of interesting and very diverse blog posts!


Reader Wil said...

Strangely enough, I had been thinking of the same subject after hearing President Sarkozy of France speaking about "occidental"and "oriental". It's true: I am oriental to the countries that are occidental. Germany is always called our "Easter Neighbour".It's better to speak of Asian products than of "oriental ones".
Great post! Thank you.
Wil, ABC Team.

Roger Owen Green said...

Yeah, the "Far East" /Orient has bugged me for a while. Using those terms, one sounds like an occidental tourist.

ROG, ABC Wednesday team

chubskulit said...

Very enlightening, thanks for discussing this in details. I heard orient a lot from where I came from.

Rose, ABC Wednesday Team

Leslie: said...

You've made some gOOd points here.

abcw team

Suzy said...

The Occidental in Welly is a good place to hangout. Try breakfast at the Occi.