Asian, Indian, Pakistani – what’s in a name?

Begun 2016 | 6,100 words | Contents

Q: Why are Britons with ethnic origins in the Indian subcontinent called ‘Asian‘?
A: It’s short for ‘South Asian‘. Apparently. And it’s considered inoffensive.

‘Interesting and well put together’ – Dr Liam McCarthy, University of Leicester

My December 2022 UK Guardian letter on ‘Where are you from?’ (Scroll to Chris Hughes)

Detail of illustration: 15 positions in 15 months of lockdown ’20-21 by Apoorva Singh

Asian, Indian, Pakistani – what’s in a name?
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Where are you from?

When did it start?

Asia’s a big continent

From the Indian subcontinent

It’s Indian, innit

Asian English, anyone?

Nationalism and English racism

It’s different in the USA

Guardian wrong shock – it’s ‘South Asian’ with a capital ‘S’

Partition – don’t blame Jinnah

Asian, Indian, Pakistani – what’s in a name?
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A pre-ramble

Why am I, a white English man, writing this? Am I a closet racist, annoyed by having large numbers of brown-skinned people living here, and having to call them ‘Asian’? No. And yes.

Asia – a big continent | Colour me antiracist | They’re here because we were there | The name of the rose | Say my name

Asian, Indian, Pakistani – what’s in a name?

Asia – a big continent

Annoyingly wrong

Does ‘Asian’ annoy me? Yes – that’s why I started writing this post. It’s obviously wrong, but everyone says it as though it’s perfectly reasonable.

There’s no problem with identifying the UK’s black Caribbean ethnic group. There’s been some debate about wording and hyphenation, but ethnic identity has always been clear.

But there has been a problem naming and identifying the UK’s other main ethnic minority. The solution has been to use the politically correct but inaccurate name, ‘Asian’.

Political correctness, properly applied, protects minorities. So the PC is OK – but the meaningless inaccuracy isn’t.

It’s been overlooked because ethnicity’s a sensitive issue. But what the hell – I’m going to look at it. Sensitively.

Asian, Indian, Pakistani – what’s in a name?

Colour me anti-racist

Me and my id

Am I a closet racist? No. I’m an anti-racist and pro-immigration liberal. I support multiculturalism and diversity. My wife’s a Muslim with family roots in what’s now Pakistan. (I haven’t ‘converted’ – I’m still an agnostic lapsed Anglican. Luckily, she’s not very religious.)

However, I think we’re all unconsciously racist because of a largely redundant but still-active anti-stranger instinct evolved to protect against communicable disease. Differences in facial appearance and skin colour presumably enhance ‘strangerness’.

For white people especially, that instinct has been revived and twisted by vile colonialism, which – encouraged by white-supremacist ‘Enlightenment’ philosophers such as Immanuel Kant – viewed the darker-skinned people encountered as inferior.

(See my post, Racism explained as a redundant instinct.)

So I have racist feelings – but I don’t want them and there’s no justification for them. Having acknowledged them, I choose not to indulge them but to live above them (along with other monsters from the id), and to oppose racism in others as best I can.

Asian, Indian, Pakistani – what’s in a name?

They’re here because we were there

Home improvement

As for having large numbers of South Asian (and African) people living in England, it’s fine by me – they’ve livened things up no end. But not everyone thinks so.

Postwar mass immigration provoked widespread racism, unconscious in origin but consciously ‘justified’.

It’s a liberal’s quandary: if you speak about this, you can be accused of victim-blaming. But I’ll speak – or write – about it anyway.

The National Archives (the official UK government archive) says:

    When the Second World War ended in 1945, it was quickly recognised that the reconstruction of the British economy required a large influx of immigrant labour. The Royal Commission on Population reported in 1949 that immigrants of ‘good stock’ would be welcomed ‘without reserve’, and potential newcomers from the Caribbean and elsewhere soon became aware of the pressing needs of the labour market in the UK.

Note the commission’s absurd lofty paternalism. They thought immigrants of ‘good stock’ (what?!) would be welcomed ‘without reserve’ – but there was no real concern for the social well-being of either host or immigrant communities.

If the British people had been consulted and had agreed mass immigration was needed, and if both natives and immigrants had been prepared for two-way integration, there might have been a more welcoming atmosphere.

Anyway, the evil empire, having drained its colonies of natural assets, then exploited their inhabitants by importing them as cheap(ish) labour. And here we all are, 70-odd years later.

Currently, 13% of people in the UK belong to a black, South Asian or mixed ethnic group.

Despite anti-racist progress, the racism that began 70 years ago persists and still blights the lives of many black and South Asian people.

But the presence of postwar immigrants and their descendants, as well as helping to rebuild and maintain the economy, has improved life in Britain immeasurably.

Asian, Indian, Pakistani – what’s in a name?

The name of the rose 🌷

A thorny subject

In Shakespeare’s best known play, Romeo and Juliet, teenager Juliet is forbidden to see Romeo because of a family feud. He’s a Montague and she’s a Capulet. A frustrated Juliet exclaims:

    What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.

Juliet’s right, of course, to say a rose’s human-given name doesn’t affect its nature-given smell. But she’s wrong to suggest naming’s unimportant.

Her passionate plea disregards the problem of nominative versus universal names, as expounded by William of Ockham (he of Occam’s razor).

In what we call reality, there’s no universal flower. Real flowers have different smells. The significance of nomination is that the name of the flower and of its variety – the name of the rose (!) – indicates its unique characteristics, including its particular sweet smell.

Likewise, Romeo’s Montague heritage couldn’t be so easily dismissed. The differences indicated by the lovers’ family names had tragic consequences (albeit compounded by the play’s melodramatic chain of events).

So, what’s in a name? Quite a lot, actually…

Asian, Indian, Pakistani – what’s in a name?

Say my name

It’s Asian – South Asian

Naming of flowers (or families) is one thing – but naming of human ethnic groups is another matter. Why do they have to be named? We’re all human. Is it racist?

There are no human races, just human populations with differences which, apart from single-gene disorders, are genetically superficial.

Dodgy lyrics aside, Blue Mink were right: what we need is a great big melting pot. That’s happening – people are now ‘mixed’.

(That brings different naming issues. See my post, Is it OK to say ‘mixed-race’? No. But….)

But that mixing is only happening in relatively small numbers. In the UK (and elsewhere in the west) there are large ethnic minorities – with names.

UK post-immigrant communities still face racism. So the names matter.

People might say, ‘Asian, South Asian – does it really matter?’ Yes – because ‘Asian’ may be widespread but it’s wrong; and ‘South Asian’ is right but it’s confusing (partly because so few people use it).


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A linguistic legacy of partition

The British Nationality Act 1948 gave citizens of British colonies and the Commonwealth (a voluntary association of former colonies) the status of Citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies, and recognised their right to work and settle in the UK and to bring their families.

This allowed the UK government to sponsor large-scale immigration to help rebuild the British economy after WW2.

This typically clumsy piece of social engineering had many unforeseen consequences, one of which – the subject of this post – is that UK citizens with origins in the former colony of India ended up being called ‘Asian’.

From 1948 onwards, many people from British colonies and former colonies answered the call and came to the UK. Many people came from the former colony of India.

But following the partition of India in 1947 (another – more deadly – piece of clumsy social engineering), there’s been a problem with how people from that part of the world are described here in the UK.

Many UK citizens are of Pakistani, Indian or (since 1972) Bangladeshi origin. Before partition, they could all have been described as ‘Indian‘.

But now, Pakistanis can be offended if they’re called Indian, Indians if called Pakistani, and Bangladeshis if called Indian or Pakistani.

The solution (since at least the late 1980s) has been to name those people ‘Asian‘. But it’s the wrong word, isn’t it? What’s going on?

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Where are you from?

A controversial question


In social interaction it is, of course, possible to ask someone about their country of ethnic origin – but it’s a social minefield.

A white Briton asking a brown (or black) Briton who’s a stranger or casual acquaintance, ‘Where are you from?’ isn’t a good idea. ‘Where are you really from?’ is much worse.

Such questions are inconsiderately intrusive and, at best, microracist.

Unpicked – though the questioner might not consciously realise it – the question is likely to mean:

    Your skin colour and facial appearance suggests your ethnic origin isn’t European. In which country are your family origins? Actually, though, I don’t really care where you’re from – my question is mainly rhetorical. I’m just drawing attention to your otherness.

A 2022 high-profile incident involving a UK royal aide and a black British charity worker is a good example of this phenomenon (and supports Meghan Markle’s implied claim of racism in the royal household).

Former royal aide Lady Susan Hussey | Photo: Getty

The aide, Lady Susan Hussey, widow of BBC chairman Baron Hussey, close friend of King Charles and the late Queen, and godmother to heir Prince William, resigned after the incident.

If the question, as in that case, seems offensively rhetorical, the asker’s bluff can be called: ‘Why do you want to know?

If, on the other hand, the question seems genuine, and worthy of a helpful response, it might nevertheless be not so easy to answer.

For an answer to be accurate – and understood – both parties need good geopolitical and historical awareness. It can get complicated.

For instance, If a brown British person is known to be a Muslim, they might not be of Pakistani origin. Many UK Muslims have origins in the Indian state of Gujerat. (Almost one in five Indian people are Muslim.)

Also, many people came to the UK from Indian communities in East African and Caribbean countries, mainly Kenya, Uganda and Trinidad. They were there because of – guess what – another piece of clumsy and careless social engineering by the Brutish empire.

Between 1834 and 1917, many people were induced to move from India to other colonies as indentured labourers for the empire. Unsurprisingly, the conditions were harsh and the wages low. The workers were derogatively called ‘coolies’.

Indian indentured labourers, seeking to escape the poverty and famine frequent during colonial rule, came mainly from the Punjab and Bengal regions (both later severed during partition).

On completing their indenture, some stayed on in Africa or the Caribbean. They were joined by family members and formed thriving expatriate communities (albeit protected by the brutal stranglehold of empire).

After independence, those in Uganda were famously expelled by Idi Amin. In Kenya, harsh changes to citizenship rules prompted mass voluntary emmigration.

Those UK immigrants, whilst identifying by religion, often also identify by their diaspora community.

For instance, my (brown-skinned) wife, when asked ‘Where are you from?’, sometimes says ‘Nairobi’. Her ethnicity is Punjabi but she was born in Kenya and spent her childhood there.

The person asked could attempt a complete reply such as: ‘My family origins are Punjabi Muslim in what’s now Pakistan, but after my grandfather moved to what’s now Kenya as an indentured labourer for the British empire, we lived there for several generations before we came to the UK in the late 60s.’

Or they could summarise it: ‘Pakistan’.

However, the question is more likely to provoke a passive-aggressive and deliberately obtuse reply, such as, ‘I’m from Leicester – where are you from?’ (or the deliberately annoying ‘from my mother’s womb’).

The question ‘Where are you from?’ might seem like casual curiosity framed as a friendly enquiry, but it’s microracism.

To unpick it further – though, again, the questioner might not consciously realise it – behind that innocent-seeming question lies a worse one: ‘Why are you here?

The questioner might therefore reasonably be told to fuck off, or be given the pithy retort, ‘If you’re asking why I’m here, we’re here because you were there‘.

The hidden question, ‘Why are you here?‘ at least offers the possibility of debate and reason; but behind that lurks the racist rhetorical question: ‘Why don’t you go back there?

For postwar immigrants to the UK and their descendants, such racism is never far below the surface.

It’s reasonable to think of such racism as a redundant anti-stranger instinct revived and twisted by colonialism, and provoked by socially engineered post-colonial postwar mass immigration.

(Anti-racists aware of that can choose to live above it and oppose it. See my post, Racism explained as a redundant instinct.)

More considerate indigenous Brits, whether aware of all that or just wary of the social minefield, don’t ask that awkward question.

There’s no need to know where someone is ‘from’. If it’s thought necessary to describe someone’s ethnicity, they can follow the convention of referring to people apparently having ethnic origins in that part of the world as ‘Asian’.

British ‘Asian’ people also follow that convention when identifying their ethnic origin. They voluntarily identify themselves as Asian British or British Asian in ethnicity surveys used for the census and to monitor discrimination.

(British Asian people also ask the question, ‘Where are you from?‘ of each other. The purpose is to find out the other’s origins: their country, religion, region, town, and caste or class. That’s a different can of worms.)

Asian, Indian, Pakistani – what’s in a name?
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When did it start?

A brief history

It’s all the rage now, but when did the convention of calling people from India. Pakistan or Bangladesh ‘Asian‘ begin?

The earliest example I could find dates from 1989, when BBC Radio launched its Asian Network station to provide ‘speech and music output appealing to British Asians‘. The music was specified as being from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. (But see below.)

In 1995, the Guardian newspaper was using both ‘Asian‘ and ‘South Asian in this context, for instance in this article. (However, they bizarrely insist on spelling the South in South Asian wrongly – with a small ‘s’. See below.)

In 2001, the UK census first used ‘Asian‘ in that context, with the heading ‘Asian or Asian British‘. The options were Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi (and, confusingly, ‘Any other Asian background’).

Since the late 1970s, UK police identity codes known as IC codes have been used to identify the apparent ethnicity of suspects and victims. Currently, IC4 is ‘Asian‘, meaning people apparently of Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi ethnicity.

So, the convention of calling people of Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi ethnicity ‘Asian‘ has existed since at least the late 1980s.

There’s been some resistance. A 2002 Asian Network poll found most UK Asian people disliked being called ‘Asian‘. A Guardian report on the station and its poll said Asian people preferred to be described by their country of origin.

Description by country of origin would work on self-identification forms, but there’d be difficulties with how Asian people are referred to by others.

The three main Asian communitiesIndian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi – aren’t the same, and they campaign for the differences to be understood, but how should they be referred to collectively when that’s necessary?

Regarding an Asian individual’s country of origin, how would people know? Presumably, they’d have to ask that controversial question: ‘Where are you from?

Apparently, some people of Pakistani origin even say they’d prefer to be called ‘Indian‘ rather than ‘Asian‘ – because that would at least convey a regional cultural identity.

Mainly though, in spite of such understandable reservations, UK Asian people, presumably aware of the difficulties for all concerned (and perhaps subconsciously yearning for subcontinental unity), seem willing to accept the collective ‘Asian’ identification.

Update, January 2023

I’d found no usage of ‘Asian’ before 1989, and no online history or archive covering it.
I tried asking my Kenyan South Asian wife and her family but got no definite answers. However, I recently came across earlier examples in a 2019 PHD thesis.

Connecting with new Asian communities: BBC Local Radio 1967-1990 by Liam McCarthy, honorary fellow at the University of Leicester, included many contemporaneous examples of ‘Asian’ – used to mean Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi – from the 1950s up to 1990.

Asian National page of the Radio Times of Kenya, 1960 | Photo: McCarthy’s PHD thesis

In Kenya, the Asian National radio service ran from the 1950s to the late 60s. Most examples in the thesis, dating from the 1960s to the late 80s, are from BBC documents and radio programme names, but a Leicester vox pop example from 1975 indicates some common usage.

So although ‘Asian’ became more widespread after 1990, it’s been in use since the 1950s, closer to the causation point: the 1947 partition.

If anyone knows how it arose in the first place – presumably in the early 1950s – please tell me.

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Asia’s a big continent

Some geography

Asia – a big continent

The main problem with calling someone of Pakistani, Indian or Bangladeshi origin ‘Asian’ is, of course, the absurd geographical and linguistic inaccuracy.

Asia’s a huge continent, stretching from Turkey to the eastern edge of Russia. Three countries occupying about one twentieth of Asia’s land mass have hijacked the name of the whole continent.

Asian‘ probably originated as a careless contraction of the more accurate and occasionally used alternative, ‘South Asian‘ – but that contraction is annoyingly meaningless.

The geographic region of South Asia includes Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, as well as Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Nepal, Afghanistan and the Maldives. (There are quibbles: some say Iran is included; some say Afghanistan isn’t, it’s in West or Central Asia.)

The six geographic Asian regions are North Asia (sometimes, bizarrely, included in Europe), Central Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia, West Asia (confusingly, part of the Middle East) and South Asia.

The six regions of Asia, including South (or Southern) Asia | Mapsofworld

South Asian‘ has a tiresome extra word – but unlike ‘Asian‘, it makes sense. It’s used in the UK mainly in the media* to mean Pakistani, Indian or Bangladeshi.

It’s not much used in everyday speech, except by a few politically correct pedants like me. It’s easier to say ‘Asian‘, sure – but it’s meaninglessly inaccurate!

* UK newspaper the Guardian insists – wrongly – in spelling it ‘south Asian‘ with a small ‘s’. See below..

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From the Indian subcontinent

Some more geography

The main polite alternative to ‘Asian’ or ‘South Asian’ is ‘from the Indian subcontinent‘. This occasionally used phrase is geographically accurate but somewhat politically incorrect.

the Indian subcontinent is the terrestrial part the Indian Plate, which separated from supercontinent Gondwana about 100 million years ago, drifted North and collided with Asia 55 million years ago. (The collision created the Himalayas).

Subcontinent‘ is a geographical term meaning subdivision of a continent – in this case Asia. It’s Asian now, innit.

Drifted together – before and after | iStock

The Indian subcontinent includes Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, as well as Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Nepal, and the Maldives. It’s South Asia minus Afghanistan.

From the Indian subcontinent‘ is more accurate than ‘Asian’ or even ‘South Asian’, and it’s useful when it might be unclear to say ‘South Asian‘ (for instance in the Q&A, above), but it sounds clumsy, and smacks of Orientalism and empire.

A politically correct version of the name, the South Asian subcontinent, sounds equally clumsy. The simplified – and enigmatic – ‘from the subcontinent‘ is cooler. Man.

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It’s Indian, innit

The yoof of today

Not long ago, Pakistan was India; and some people lazily or nostalgically still think of ‘India’ as the name of the region. Consequently, the most likely way to cause offence is to inadvertently call someone who happens to be of Pakistani origin ‘Indian‘.

However, ironically, young UK people of Pakistani origin often use ‘Indian‘ themselves when referring to anyone or anything from either India or Pakistan – as in the catchily assonant (and internally alliterative) meme, ‘It’s Indian, innit‘ (optionally said with a culturally appropriated Jamaican rudeboy accent).

It’s probably best not to try this if you’re not South Asian – or West Indian (!). Complicated, innit, post-colonial cross-culture.

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Asian English, anyone?

Apparently not

Indigenous white UK citizens rarely describe themselves as British except on monitoring forms. They’re more likely to say they’re English, Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish.

Do UK Asian people living in England ever identify as Asian English, or do they prefer ‘Asian British‘?

In 2014 researchers found most Asian people in Scotland preferred to be known as ‘Scottish Asian‘ rather than ‘Asian British‘. They also found minority groups are more likely to claim a Scottish identity in Scotland than an English identity in England.

I’ve never come across anyone identifying as Asian English – and Googling it gives no relevant results. Does a person living in England and identifying as Asian British, who’s family roots are in, say, Pakistan, understandably think of themselves as Pakistani rather than English?

There’s one good reason for British Asian people to avoid Englishness: it’s been tainted by association with anti-immigrant groups.

Far-right, racist, nationalist groups have claimed to defend England against Islam and other immigrant cultures.

The previously little-used English flag, the red cross of St George (a not-very-English Roman soldier of Turkish-Greek origin serving in Palestine), has been hijacked by the racist Right.

The current widespread use of the English flag in support of the England football team – you don’t see it in photos of England’s 1966 world cup victory – might well cause concern in immigrant communities.

1966 – plenty of racism then, but no St George flags / PA

The UK ‘Union Jack’ flag as shown above was used in the logo of racist party the National Front. The NF, big in the 1970s, has all but disappeared. Current racists groups favour the red-cross English flag.

Perhaps British Asian people do well to steer clear of the complicated issue of Englishness. It’s probably best left to the indigenous English.

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Nationalism and English racism

Engerland the fatherland

Research shows British Asian people are unlikely to claim English identity. One possible reason is that Englishness has been hijacked by flag-waving nationalist neo-Nazi groups.

Those groups have freely used the provocative Crusader red cross of the ‘St GeorgeEnglish flag in their campaigning, and have claimed to ‘defend’ England against Islam and other immigrant cultures.

Nationalist racists began organising in the 1930s, and were later keen to exploit the tension which followed postwar mass immigration to the UK.

That immigration, ordained for economic reasons with no consultation and no concern for the social wellbeing of immigrant or host communities, inevitably disturbed the locals. There was widespread racism.

The far right tried to exploit that, with some limited success – the National Front was quite big in the 1970s – but it’s never had much support in the phlegmatic UK. Enoch Powell was wrong.

Powell‘s notorious 1968 ‘rivers of blood’ speech warning of mass civil disturbance was false prophecy. Powell quoted a Roman poet foreseeing the River Tiber ‘foaming with blood’, but – despite occasional ‘race’ riots – there’s been no foaming of blood in the UK.

Thanks to common sense and goodwill, and to anti-racist campaigning and legislation, most citizens of all ethnicities have accepted a pragmatic mixture of multiculturalism and integration.

There’s been talk recently, in the face of illiberal teaching in some segregated faith schools, of promoting British Values – but the values prescribed aren’t exclusively ‘British’. They’re the European Enlightenment values that underpin modern liberal democracy.

The solution to segregation is not for immigrant communities to be made to somehow acquire ‘Britishness’ – it’s for those communities to stop self-segregating. Britishness is what happens when you live here without segregating yourself.

If there are ‘British values’, one of the best, ironically, is a stoical indifference to national pride and flag-waving patriotism. (See my post, Patriotism – for scoundrels.)

There was a disturbing spike in racism following the UK’s EU referendum in 2016, but younger people generally seem far less racist than previous generations.

Despite that lessening of inter-ethnic tension, black and South Asian Britons continue to face prejudice and discrimination, both personal and institutional.

The Black Lives Matter movement raised awareness of that conscious and unconscious racism, and has encouraged antiracists to speed up the UK’s slow progress towards ending racism.

Apart from the Salafi self-segregation practised by some UK Muslims (which damages women and children and provokes racism), multicultural England doesn’t need defending against immigrant cultures – it’s made of them.

Racist nationalists who claim to defend England can shove their flags, and crawl back under their stone.

It’s natural to love your country, but nationalism, with its flag-waving banality and its dangerous, narrow-minded ideology is an unnatural abomination.

The danger of nationalism is shown by the murderous religious conflict in India associated with the rise of populist prime minister Narendra Modi, his Hindu nationalist BJP party and the Hindu nationalist RSS paramilitary group he belongs to.

Globally, the nation state‘s had its day. The big states are powerful but they can’t stop global warming. The so-called United Nations is toothless – it helps the victims but pussyfoots with the autocratic perpetrators.

To right nationalism’s wrongs – environmental destruction, poverty, corruption, disease and war – what the world needs now (as well as love, sweet love, of course) is transnational federated World government – with teeth.

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It’s different in the USA

Asian the American way

In the UK, ‘Asian‘ is used to refer to anyone apparently of South Asian ethnicity. However, in the USA, ‘Asian‘ refers to people of East Asian ethnicity.

Left: Asian woman, UK. Right: Asian man, USA | Getty Images

This avoids offending Japanese people by calling them Chinese, and vice versa. As with Pakistan and India, there’s historical enmity between the two countries.

Asian‘ in the USA – as blatantly inaccurate as the UK version – is apparently a careless abbreviation of ‘East Asian‘. The geographic region of East Asia includes China and Japan as well as South Korea, North Korea, Taiwan, and Mongolia.

More broadly, ‘Asian American‘ means having ethnic origins in East Asia, South Asia or Southeast Asia (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Brunei, East Timor, Indonesia, the Philippines and Singapore).

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Guardian wrong shock – it’s ‘South Asian’ with a capital ‘S’

Welcome to Pedants Corner
What they do | Why they do it | Why it’s wrong | Hi ho, silver lining

Asian, Indian, Pakistani – what’s in a name?
Guardian wrong shock  🔺

What they do

Never do what they do

    Guardian headline:

    Gene common in south Asian people doubles risk of Covid death, study finds

In the 2021 headline above from the Guardian (the UK’s most-read quality newspaper), ‘south Asian‘ has a small ‘s’. However – shock, horror – the Guardian’s got it wrong. It should, of course, be ‘South Asian‘ with a capital ‘S’.

This isn’t one of the ‘typo’ errors the Guardian used to be famous for (giving it the nickname ‘the Grauniad‘). The paper has deliberately printed ‘south Asian‘ with a small ‘s’ since it first started using the epithet a few decades ago. (See, for instance, this 1993 article.)

It’s not just an issue of grammar. The Guardian’s idiosyncratic lower-case ‘s’ effectively demeans South Asian people. That’s clearly not the liberal Guardian’s intention – but it’s the inevitable effect of the paper’s grammatical anomaly.

I’m a long-time Guardian reader, but I only recently noticed the ‘south Asian’ spelling. Aggrieved, I turned to the A-Z Guardian style guide, normally a shining beacon of omniscient clarity – but it was disappointingly flawed.

The Guardian style guide had no entries for ‘Asian‘ or ‘South Asian‘. This was a surprising omission by a liberal paper rightly championing multiculturalism.

South Asian‘, meaning Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi, is a sensitive, circuitous, polite, and politically correct element of multiculturalism. Its use in the Guardian deserves a clear explanation.

The main problem, however, is the Guardian’s bizarre insistence on spelling ‘south Asian’ with a small ‘s’.

Asian, Indian, Pakistani – what’s in a name?
Guardian wrong shock  🔺

Why they do it

Why, why, why? (Bad reasoning)

I complained to the Guardian about their ‘south Asian spelling. In reply, they quoted this, from the style guide G section:

    distinct areas are capped up: Black Country, East Anglia, Lake District, Midlands, Peak District, Potteries, West Country, etc; but areas defined by compass points are lc: the north, the south-east, the south-west, etc.

This is nonsense as an explanation for their ‘south Asian’ spelling. Defined geopolitical areas such as South Asia aredistinct areas‘. They’re not ‘areas defined by compass points‘ – the compass point is part of their proper name.

The Guardian style guide S section has several entries beginning ‘south‘. For ‘South America‘, the compass-point element is capitalised, but for ‘south-west England, the south-east, south Wales, etc’, it isn’t.

According to geographic definition, there are six geopolitical Asian regions (see above):

  • South Asia
  • East Asia
  • Southeast Asia
  • North Asia (sometimes included in Europe)
  • West Asia (part of the Middle East)
  • Central Asia

Only two Asian regions are mentioned in the Guardian style guide. The guide’s E section gives ‘east Asia‘ and ‘south-east Asia‘.

The Guardian rule seems to be that capitals for compass-point elements are allowed in the names of Guardian-defined ‘distinct areas‘ (eg East Anglia) or continents (eg South America) but are denied in the names of ‘areas defined by compass points‘, (eg, the north).

That denial is apparently extended to major geopolitical regions with a compass-point element in their name (eg ‘south Asia’).

According to its own fuzzy logic, the Guardian should consistently spell the names of all Asian regions the same way. However, in the section heading shown below, ‘Central Asia’ is spelt correctly – with a capital ‘C’!

Edit July 2022: They’ve ‘corrected’ it! FS…

Asian, Indian, Pakistani – what’s in a name?
Guardian wrong shock  🔺

Why it’s wrong

Wrong, wrong, wrong

It’s probably pointless (geddit?) to explain why the Guardian’s wrong to write ‘south Asian’ with a lower-case ‘s’, so here goes nothing.

All major broadcasters and publishers, including Gov.UK, the BBC, Wikipedia and National Geographic, write ‘South Asia‘ with a capital ‘S’. They give proper-name status to all such major geopolitical regions.

  • Gov.UK’s style guide has no entries for ‘Asian’ or ‘South Asian’, but the website uses capital ‘S’ throughout for South Asia.
    Gov.UK article title:

    Overcrowding in South Asian households: a qualitative report

  • BBC News style guide, S section:
  • ‘South Asia, ie both words are always capped’

    BBC programme title:

    The South Asia nuclear standoff

  • Wikipedia style manual, capitalising – compass points:
  • ‘Points of the compass…are capitalized…when they form part of a proper name…If [a region] is consistently capitalized in reliable sources…then the direction word in it is capitalized’

    The Wikipedia entry for South Asia capitalises both words throughout.

  • National Geographic style manual, Asia:
  • ‘South Asia: Capitalize’

    National Geographic article headline:

    A water crisis looms for 270 million people as South Asia’s glaciers shrink

Everyone else also apparently disagrees with the Guardian. I googled ‘south asian‘, and in the first five pages of results, all instances except two – a total of 44 (disregarding those where ‘South Asian’ began a sentence) – were spelt with a capital ‘S’. The two exceptions were from the Guardian.

The Guardian prides itself on its independence, but this looks like a bad case of They Were All Out of Step But Jim (as in the humorous American World War I song).

The Guardian style guide is instructively unhelpful.

The Guardian style guide C section, under ‘capitals‘, lists sixteen ‘main principles‘ for its policy of minimalising the use of capitals – but there’s no principle listed for capitalising regions such as South Asia.

The Guardian style guide G section, under ‘geography‘ (see above), does at least address the issue. It allows capitals for ‘distinct areas‘ (such as, apparently, East Anglia) but denies them for ‘areas defined by compass points‘.

The Guardian apparently puts South Asia in the latter category. That’s nonsense. If East Anglia qualifies as a ‘distinct area‘, then surely South Asia does – it’s a major geopolitical region.

Politically, South Asia comprises eight countries (see above). Also, ‘South Asian‘ is used in the UK media to mean Pakistani, Indian or Bangladeshi.

Geographically and politically (in either sense), South Asia clearly deserves proper-name status – as do all Asian regions. Proper names should, of course, be capitalised.

The Guardian’s current minimal-capitals versions, ‘south Asia‘ and ‘south Asian‘, lack definition. They’re not proper names – they’re effectively vague and vacuous. The reader might understandably wonder what part of Asia is being referred to.

If I were South Asian (in the UK sense of having Pakistani, Indian or Bangladeshi ethnicity), I might well feel – perhaps subliminally – somewhat downgraded and mildly insulted.

(Is that what you want, Guardian? ‘Cause that’s what’ll happen.)

The Guardian style guide section on the use of capitals says:

    We aim for coherence and consistency, but not at the expense of clarity

Clarity requires ‘South Asian‘ to have a capital ‘S’ – and so does courtesy.

The Guardian, liberal flagship of the British media, should consider that the need to use a regional name as a collective proxy for British Asian people arises from the British-organised partition of India.

If the Guardian were to fall in line with all other media and give proper-name status to South Asia, it’d be a small measure of historical restitution and a large portion of common courtesy.

I love the Guardian, but they’ve got this wrong.

Asian, Indian, Pakistani – what’s in a name?
Guardian wrong shock  🔺

Hi ho, silver lining

A glimmer of hope

When I approached the Guardian about this, their response, in quoting their style guide entry on geography (see above), was – perhaps predictably – dismissively and obtusely defensive.

However, in response to my point that the Guardian style guide should have an explanation of the use of ‘South Asian‘ to mean Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi, they said they might consider adding ‘a specific entry for south Asia’.

That was begrudging – and stubbornly ungrammatical – but it was a start.

Update, over a year later: It was also an end. They haven’t changed the spelling – and they haven’t added ‘a specific entry for south Asia’. Hi fucking ho.

Section top  🔺

Asian, Indian, Pakistani – what’s in a name?
Contents 🔺

Partition – don’t blame Jinnah

Another brief history

Britain’s clumsy, careless and devastating partition of India in 1947 inevitably led to the violent deaths and forced relocation of millions of people.

Apart from the perfidious British rulers, who was to blame?

It’s often assumed that partition happened because Muslim leader Muhammad Jinnah insisted on a Muslim nation. Jinnah’s Muslim League did vote for separation in 1940, but that’s not the whole story.

Jinnah, a secular man, was determined to protect Muslims from political isolation. His preference was for a federated India, but that idea was blocked by Indian National Congress leader Jawaharlal ‘Pandit’ Nehru, leaving Jinnah no choice but separation.

Shame – it could have been the USI, with the Punjab as a multicultural federal state instead of being ripped apart by partition.

Saying ‘Asian‘ is a small reminder of that big tragedy. When remembering it, however, don’t blame Muslim pragmatist and man of principle Jinnah.

Blame the real villain: Hindu nationalist and colonial colluder Nehru.

(And while we’re at it, let’s blame another Hindu nationalist villain: Narendra Modi, current Indian premier, for the murderous violence leading to the deaths of more than 2,000 Muslims in Gujerat in 2002.)

    Blame poisons the blamer
    The antidote is secular justice

 Hugo Brucciani

    Hindus and Muslims can live in harmony if violent nationalism is seen for what it is: a cynical and corrupt bid for power, benefiting only the powerful.

 Ramaswamy Ayah

The End

Contents 🔺

Please feel free to comment

2 thoughts on “Asian, Indian, Pakistani – what’s in a name?

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