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Is "foreigner" a word that some people may get offended at?

A Japanese person learning English used to use "foreigner" as a translation of 外国人 (gaikokujin). However, a native speaker of English told her that it shouldn't be used, and she's come across an entry in an English to Japanese dictionary saying (according to her) that the word has negative connotations.

Is this true? If so, are there more appropriate alternatives?

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Why should it be negative? It's just a statement of fact. People can be a foreigner in lands that they have not come from.

Andrew Grimm, you mentioned that this question was in a Japanese context so maybe the idea of the word foreigner being negative is something from Japanese culture? I know how strict Japanese people can be in terms of manners and etiquette.

The only way that I could think of the word being offensive or negative in the English language is if it is used to define or dismiss people. For example, saying something like "they don't matter because they're just a foreigner".

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    +1 You're right. And citizens can be perceived as foreigners in their native land. That happened to me & my wife in the USA during the 60s when we, from New York City & New Jersey, went down to Georgia to live for three years. "Y'all from Nu Yawk City? Whyn'dja go back to where you came from." – user264 Apr 28 '13 at 14:17
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    Bill, that's unfortunate and a real example of being negative. That's down to personal intolerance from some people. – Tristan Apr 28 '13 at 15:25
  • I'm not sure if you're a native English speaker (or just really ignorant), but the word "foreigner" is most definitely offensive, at least in the U.S. With the tradition of discrimination against immigrants in the U.S., along with the recent issues of Hispanic and Syrian immigrants, the word "foreigner" has taken on a negative connotation. – user3932000 May 16 '16 at 5:10
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Unquestionably there are contexts where referring to someone as a foreigner (an outsider or interloper; a person from outside one's community) could be considered offensive. If you follow that link, you'll find that most in the vast majority of cases, to "call someone a foreigner" is implicitly negative/rude.

That would particularly be so if the person concerned doesn't consider himself to be "foreign" in the current context (perhaps a Glaswegian or a Falklander talking to some Cockneys in a London pub, for example). Also, there would be contexts where a person would rather others didn't call attention to their "foreignness" (a "Westernised" Arab talking with those same Cockneys, in a conversation focussing on whether police anti-terrorism measures should Stop and Search "foreign-looking" people more often than those who appear to be of more typically "native" descent).

I think foreigner is similar to, say, homosexual, in that because it is/was often used pejoratively, the word itself can acquire negative connotations. So even if the speaker (and/or audience) don't have the relevant prejudice, the "potentially loaded term" would often be avoided in favour of more "neutral"...

people from other countries, nonnatives, nonresidents, etc.

  • I think using the word westernized Arab,middle eastern, Japanese,etc is more offensive than calling immigrants who have lived half of their lives out of their original country, foreigners.I really cannot understand why choosing a special lifestyle by a free human from a country where isn't geographically in the west must be remarked as westernized! In a big world after post modernism and globalization there is no border between east and west unless political one or by prejudice. What is really westernized?! I find this term vague and ambiguous. Who can explain what westernized means?:) – Persian Cat Apr 28 '13 at 19:45
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    Dubai and Abu Dhabi, for example, are often described as very westernised (of a country, person, or system) adopting or being influenced by the cultural, economic, or political systems of Europe and North America. Bear in mind that no matter how much you may endorse the traditional values of your (non-westernised) homeland, others (even in that land) may see things very differently. And Anglophones (typically, "of the Western world") are even more likely to differ. – FumbleFingers Apr 28 '13 at 19:54
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    Well, here I am in Taiwan where I'm an obvious foreigner because I don't look Chinese. But there's no way to tell whether I'm a non-native except talking to me; there's no way to tell whether I'm a non-resident or non-citizen except asking me. There's no such thing as a "neutral term" term for someone, not even a name. When mom's mad at junior, she says "Robert Winston Smith! Where are you?" rather than "Bobby, where are you?" The names used imply an attitude. "Foreigner" can be purely descriptive & emotionally neutral to the speaker. The listener takes offense. We hear what we want to hear. – user264 Apr 29 '13 at 7:09
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I teach college in a state university, and I avoid calling anyone "foreign" because the term also means "strange, odd, or unfamiliar," which are words that often carry negative connotations. I refer to students from other countries as international students, because I see the term "international" as more objective and less offensive.

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Ironically, "foreigner" is an English word I hear being used almost exclusively by...foreigners.

I would generally consider it to be a rude or negative word, simply because in polite conversation there wouldn't be a reason to use it instead of a different, more polite or more specific word.

For example, if I wanted to say that someone who is not from America, where I live, is foreign, I would refer to their place of origin instead. For instance if they were from Egypt I would call them "an Egyptian." I would simply say "He is Egyptian" rather than "He is a foreigner."

When referring to a group of people who are "foreigners," or to the concept of being foreign, I think there are less clumsy ways to say that. For instance, if I were to refer to people travelling to America I would call them "travellers." If I were to refer to people living in America without citizenship I might say "non-citizens," or in other contexts "immigrants."

There simply isn't a case I can think of where "foreigner" could not be replaced by a more polite, less stigmatizing or less general term.

Only when hearing people speak English in non-English speaking countries do I hear the term "foreigner" used casually. It is more of an artifact of imperfect translation I think.

  • I the last time I remember hearing it it was being used by an American, speaking in Thailand to a group of people from numerous different countries - and what she meant was not American (!) Translation is necessarily imperfect - foreigner may well be the best option... – user96060 Jun 24 at 3:21

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