On Labels

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The other day I looked up the origin of the term Orient, which derives from the Latin oriens, meaning “east” or, literally, “rising,” referring to the direction from which the sun rises. In the Occident, or Western World, the Orient refers to lands that lie east of Europe. These terms derive from a rather explicitly Euro-centric view of the world and have generally fallen out of common usage today, in favor geographical terms like Asia or South Asia.

The Wikipedia article indicates that “the term Oriental can be considered a pejorative and disparaging term when used to describe a person.” The article quotes David Patterson, who as governor of New York, signed legislation in 2009 to remove the term from official state documents. He said, “The word ‘oriental’ does not describe ethnic origin, background or even race; in fact, it has deep and demeaning historical roots.”

I found a wide spectrum of opinions online about this assertion. Persuasive arguments both for and against using the term were offered by people who claimed Asian ethnicity. Of course there were also a lot of narrow-minded and rather stupid arguments, mostly from people in denial that anyone could or should be offended by a word with such a benign etymology. I am not a sociologist, historian, or linguist, but I find this controversy fascinating.

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We have similar arguments in medicine about what to call things. There has been a push over the last few decades to strip the names of physicians who supported the Nazi regime from the diseases they described. That is why Hallervorden-Spatz disease is now known as panthotenate kinase deficiency, although I honestly can’t decide which name rolls off the tongue more easily.

We also face great difficulties in the taxonomy of diseases, where the age-old war between lumpers and splitters continues to rage. A lumper is one who prefers to group similar things together for convenience, and a splitter is one who tends to focus on and classify subtypes. One complaint about the term Oriental is that it is too “lumpy,” that it does not usefully distinguish the great diversity of cultures that may be found on the huge land masses east of Europe. I sympathize with that argument, but I also acknowledge that splitters can sometimes take things too far. There are no less than thirteen distinct varieties of Guillain-Barre syndrome.

There’s also the annoying problem of medical terms being put to common use and thereby losing or changing their meaning. Abortion is one such word, which long ago was synonymous with miscarriage. Mental retardation is a fantastically descriptive term, as applied to patients who have diminished mental capacity because of a problem with brain development. The only problem is that grade school kids started using it as an insult. Retarded is only the latest in a long line of similar words which have been commandeered this way; idiot, imbecile, moron, dumb, and cretin were also medical terms, once upon a time.

So what is the new medical jargon to replace mental retardation? I would tell you, but the schoolyard bullies might be reading.

This problem of evolving meaning is the most persuasive argument against using the term Oriental to describe people. This word, initially purely descriptive, has unfortunately been used as a term of disparagement sometimes, and is therefore offensive to some people.

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I belong to a religious group which has been incorrectly known since its early days by an epithet. The official name, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was not specified by revelation until eight years after the Church was organized. By then we were already widely known as Mormons, although at no point was that word ever a part of our real name.

The Book of Mormon is Another Testament of Jesus Christ, an ancient scripture which we study in parallel to and in series with the Bible. Mormon was an ancient Christian prophet who lived in America, and his writings are named after him for the same reason that Isaiah’s, Joel’s, and Ezekiel’s are named after them.

Early enemies of the Church seized upon this unusual name, Mormon, and used it as a pejorative term. A heavily-persecuted minority sect is not really in a position to make demands of its enemies, so Church members were obliged to accept and even embrace this nickname, much as the early saints in Antioch did theirs.

Over the years there have been many official Church publications referring to the Mormon Church and using the term Mormonism to refer to our doctrine and practices. As recently as five years ago the Church was producing the “I’m a Mormon” ad campaign and “Meet the Mormons” video profiles.

So what changed?

In 2018 President Russell M. Nelson announced a course correction.

“Today I feel compelled to discuss with you a matter of great importance. Some weeks ago, I released a statement regarding a course correction for the name of the Church. I did this because the Lord impressed upon my mind the importance of the name He decreed for His Church, even The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. […]

“Thus, the name of the Church is not negotiable. When the Savior clearly states what the name of His Church should be and even precedes His declaration with, ‘Thus shall my church be called,’ He is serious. And if we allow nicknames to be used or adopt or even sponsor those nicknames ourselves, He is offended.” (Russell M. Nelson, “The Correct Name of the Church,” October 2018 General Conference).

I don’t want to be called a Mormon; I am a disciple of Jesus Christ, and a member of his restored church. Getting that label correct is important to me, because my discipleship is important to me.

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Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints should sympathize with others who are known by unwanted nicknames, including racial epithets. We should readily grant others the courtesy which we ourselves desire to receive. This is a specific application of the Golden Rule, as taught by the Savior:

“Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12).

The corollary of this rule was taught by the ancient Jewish scholar Hillel: “That which is hateful unto you, do not do to your neighbor.” Labels can induce strong feelings; if the term Oriental is hateful to people, then I won’t use it. There are plenty of reasonable alternatives.

The conflict here isn’t really about a word; it’s about people and how they have been treated. Again, this is a perspective that Church members should sympathize with. We know how it feels to have a collective history of being despised and abused. We also know what it’s like to ultimately succeed and prosper despite these challenges.

We will always have arguments about what to call things. That is the nature of human civilization, constantly churning and revising. Words and phrases will come and go as language evolves over time, but the imperative “do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly” is timeless (Micah 6:8).


Alan B. Sanderson is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is a practicing neurologist. Cover art from Wikimedia Commons. Podcast music written by Patricia Kelsey Graham.

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