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The Term “Foreigner”

Is the term ‘foreigner’ still acceptable, if not (as I belive) do we have another word or phrase we can use to refer to people that don’t hail from the speakers home country?

  • November 11, 2004
  • Posted by stuart
  • Filed in Usage

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Stuart, please go out of your way to avoid using the word. It may be the quickest and easiest word to think of, but unfortunately nasty people have ruined it.

Your best alternatives depend on context, but "people from other countries" is never wrong. If you intend to contrast people with the "native-born," you may refer to them as "immigrants," "extranationals" (not used much and kind of officialese sounding), "noncitizens," etc. In college, we had an "International Student Union," and referred to students from other countries as "international students." Here in our "multinational" corporation, we refer to our emplyees in other countries as "non-U.S. employees."

Play with it and see what sounds right to you.

speedwell2 November 11, 2004 @ 5:43PM

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OK, here's another thought. I sense you may be looking for a word to place in a construction like this, in which refer to my own family background:

"My father was born in Hungary and moved to the US when he was 20. He is a/an ________. His family still lives in Hungary. I live in Texas. With respect to me, the members of my father's family are __________."

I personally would use the words "immigrant" in the first case, and in the second case just say that my father's family is "Hungarian." I could also say they are "natives of another country."

speedwell2 November 11, 2004 @ 5:58PM

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Well! This was a shock to read. Are you serious, Speedwell? I work as a public servant (now THERE's a conception I find difficult to express in English; I'm not a hotel maid), and have foreig-g-gnnnnn... erm, customers from all over the world. Until now I have referred to "our services for foreigners" (we are not a commercial enterprise, you see, so the company hasn't made it clear to us what terms to use), but now I must think of another expression.

Perenna1 November 11, 2004 @ 10:46PM

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Perenna, you're from Great Britain? (I don't think government workers in the US commonly refer to themselves as "public servants" anymore.)

In the US, inclusive and tolerant as we like to think we are, "foreigner" is definitely a not-OK word unless you're talking about the 70's rock band :) but it's true that I don't know what is proper overseas. I asked a co-worker from Vermont and another co-worker from Aberdeen what they thought, though, and they both said it was a "better not use" sort of word.

YMMV. ("your mileage may vary," as is said in new car commercials)

speedwell2 November 12, 2004 @ 7:54AM

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Another vote here against "foreigner" & in favor of "immigrant" or something similar. "Foreigner" evokes, to me, anti-immigrant rhetoric; it seems to set up an "us & them" sort of divide immediately.

Johanna November 12, 2004 @ 8:49AM

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Speedwell, no, I'm not from Great Britain, I'm from Finland. Or, rather, IN Finland. :) Finnish, that is.

It's funny. One of the terms you suggest instead of 'foreigner' is 'noncitizen'. In my ears it sounds as if I were questioning the other part's humanity, 'non-human'. But then I'm not a native speaker of English and couldn't know. I'm a foreigner, you see. :)

I'm not a government worker but work for the municipality. City worker, perhaps I could say? Thank you for that conception, as a matter of fact I need it quite often.

In future, I must remember to avoid 'foreign' .

Perenna1 November 12, 2004 @ 10:56AM

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Guys I'm the expert on this matter. "People" call me (or people like me) "foreigner" here in Denmark. "We" foreigners call other non-Danish folks "foreigners" too. Danish Constitution Act calls us all "aliens." (as if the Act was written by Ridley Scott!) Danes have words that can't be translated such as "perker." mostly used by non-Danishes like the word "nigga'" is used by black people. Some politically corretct calls some of the "foreigner" "new Danish peopel." or "ethnic Danes." Some consider themselves "outsider" and call themselves so. But no Danes say that. There is a band called Outlandish. If you you put a line right in the middle of Europe what stands on the left side is where provides "imigrants" coming to DK. People from the right side are called "refugees" no matter why and how they came to DK. And we also have the word "asylum seeker" which is refugee who is not refuged yet and might be kicked out soon. And we also have "well-integrated foreigners" who are half-way through being "new Danes."
I personally call myself "stranger" if need be.
However it all comes down to what is not-OK as Speedwell said: FOREINERS!

goossun November 12, 2004 @ 3:26PM

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Perenna--what a coincidence! I was actually going to bring up the fact that Finns seem to say "ulkomaalaisia" (which would translate as "foreigners," right?) much more than they seem to use the word for immigrants (which I can't remember right now). So it's probably considered quite okay in Finnish society--but then again, I have also heard that it is very difficult to be an immigrant (especially a non-white one) there.

(So this doesn't seem to be coming out of nowhere: I'm half-Finnish & studying Finnish myself. :)

Johanna November 12, 2004 @ 10:42PM

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What's wrong with "foreigner"? Sure at my uni we have "international students". But I don't see it as a euphemism. In Japan they sure called me a foreigner - and it was fine because that's just what the word is. I sure wasn't an immigrant. Aren't "people from other countries" by definition foreigners?

GP1 November 13, 2004 @ 9:18PM

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Johanna: 'immigrant' in Finnish is 'maahanmuuttaja'. We use that expression, too, but, as GP pointed out, all people coming from another country are not immigrants.

As to the situation of immigrants in Finland: there are lots of social security benefits for immigrants with refugee status. Their situation is not difficult in that respect. As to people's attitude - well, I don't think it's different from any other people. Which is not to say that there are no problems.

Perenna1 November 14, 2004 @ 2:31AM

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Perenna--oh, I didn't mean it was difficult financially to be an immigrant there, just that there seems to be hostility directed in particular towards Somalian refugees. And some friends I have over there have confirmed that Finland can be somewhat of a racist society. Yes, that's true of many countries, but I imagine it must be even more difficult if you're quite a small minority in the population.

GP--the issue is not the dictionary definition of "foreigner" but its connotation.

Johanna November 14, 2004 @ 11:00AM

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I am a teacher of English as a Foreign Language in Brazil. I do companies, mostly in one-to-one settings.
I am going to have a business card made and want to make sure I include "Portuguese for Foreigners" as I have taught Portuguese to business people on assignment in Brazil
Mind you, this term is widely used in Brazil; still I wonder since I want to allure new students whether a native speaker of English would be put off by the term.
Thanks for your insightful contribution.

Eduardo3 November 14, 2004 @ 12:55PM

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Eduardo, you might try "Portuguese as a Second Language," if your target audience is speakers of English. This is by analogy with the classes we have in the US that we call ESL, or "English as a Second Language."

I know that for many non-native speakers, the new language may be a third, fourth, or fifth language, but the point gets across.

After all, your classes are not just for "foreigners," are they? Your target audience also includes immigrants who wish to become Brazilians? Don't make them feel unwelcome by referring to them as "foreigners."

Incidentally, I just asked the engineer who sits in the office behind my cubicle, who fills the air with rapid-fire Portuguese when talking to our customers in Brazil, and he said he thought "Portuguese as a Second Language" might be appropriate. You will want to try it out on some of your students and see how they like it.

speedwell2 November 15, 2004 @ 8:17AM

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"Aliens." LOL

I don't think anyone I know uses that word anymore to refer to any immigrants from locations within the orbit of the Moon. :)

speedwell2 November 15, 2004 @ 8:20AM

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Well, I am late to this cause I was on travel but.... not all foreigners are immigrants. Here inside the Beltway, as it were, we have lots of foreigners who are not planning to stay but are here to work or study or visit (for months). So if foreigners is bad, aliens is wierd, and immigrants is inaccurate, what am I left with?

Janet1 November 15, 2004 @ 12:35PM

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Thank you, speedwell, for taking the time to answering my question.

I definitely like Portuguese as a Second Language. Though a bit longer it is more comprehensive.

Now, I wonder whether the engineer you mentioned speaks European Portuguese, as it sounds so fast?


Eduardo3 November 15, 2004 @ 1:40PM

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Eduardo, I'm ashamed to admit that it probably sounds fast to me because I'm completely ignorant of Portuguese. This is not helped by the fact that the engineer is the excitable type. :)

Janet, read the whole thread for more options.

speedwell2 November 15, 2004 @ 2:01PM

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He must then be a Brazilian, Speedwell :)

Take care


Eduardo3 November 15, 2004 @ 2:18PM

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"Alien" is not so dead. While in Japan I was called a foreigner (actually litterally its more like "outsider") but officially I was an alien. I even had an "alien registration card".

GP1 November 19, 2004 @ 2:53PM

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Yeah, but there's a difference between bureaucrat-speak & what's usually considered polite/acceptable in common use.

Johanna November 19, 2004 @ 3:36PM

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I don't know about public servants (or civil servants, although those at the local DMV are anything but), but I think 'foreign' is okay myself, as in "He's foreign."

As far as referring to immigrants as aliens, I've found it easiest to describe my legal status to people as a resident alien. I've noticed a tendency for politically correct people to refer to illegal aliens as "undocumented" though.

Dominic1 November 30, 2004 @ 4:02PM

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The term foreigner is acceptable in the US, but you have to be careful you don’t piss-off the locals.

The intelligentsia here will probably refute (which is too bad because they could do it such better justice) but for many in America there is a backlash against the silliness of perceived overly politically correct terms and usage. I think they believe it is agenda oriented double-talk and equates to so called “left-wing” politics. People jokingly use the phrase “so far left they are on the right” when people get uppity about enforcing non-use of politically incorrect terms – like some evil inverse twin of the Nazi propaganda machine.

When I was living in Japan, and told that gaijin means foreigner, I was demeaned by the term thinking it a terse pejorative. When I came to understand more clearly how the pervasive term gaijin is used day-to-day (literally “outside person”) I came to believe that it was actually much worse than I had initially expected. It could be used to mean “not Japanese” and more specifically to imply “not genetically Japanese”. So it could be used as a subtle racial slur. Predictably, Japanese Americans who do not speak Japanese (although not admired there) were not as quickly categorized as gaijin.

Once I looked at the larger picture, and got over the fact that it wasn’t all-about-me, I realized that indeed… well… I was a gaijin. And that is was ME who was carrying some kind of left-wing overly sensitive word usage baggage.

My supposition is that ultimately being politically correct breeds exactly that which it is intended to reduce, ill feelings; like some kind of Star Trek conflict scenario where the more energy the ship employs, the more energy that will be used against it. Much more now I appreciate the fact that some cultures call “a spade a spade” (read: foreigner) and that proactively switching words around to protect the under privileged or salve the conscious of the over privileged, ultimately, works against itself – imho. Just a thought.

This post is not intended to be inflammatory. I’m reminded of Mr. White’s take on Mr. Strunk’s advise “Why mix ignorance with inaudibility?” : )

sully December 5, 2004 @ 2:08AM

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I agree with Sully: foreigner is not a pejorative term. In the United States, however, ethnic and cultural identity issues are complicated by the large number of immigrants and the fact that historically, the nation's population has always been composed of immigrants. I believe the term is used by the ignorant to express distaste with persons from other nations, but I don't believe the term itself has yet been tainted by this use - and I believe this kind of use happens in the minority of cases.

Sometimes I think the problem with the word is its archaic construction. "Person of foreign origin" would never be considered an improper term, but of course it means exactly the same thing. Compare "colored" vs. "person of color".

Joachim1 December 15, 2004 @ 9:13AM

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Oh, compare also the terms "Iranian" and "Japanese", which seem to have been replaced by "Persian" and "Asian". Of course these new terms refer to countries which do not, in fact, exist and therefore are less informative than their older counterparts, but they have the advantage that you wouldn't get beaten up in the 1980s for being from those places.

Joachim1 December 15, 2004 @ 9:15AM

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Let me offer a late opposing opinion from an American.

"Foreigner" is not a bad word or a dirty word. However, it is a word that must be used with caution. On a scale from 1=good to 10=bad, foreigner rates no more than a 5. That is, while it is easy to insult a person using the term foreigner, it is a proper word when used courteously.

When I travelled to Finland this summer, I described myself as a foreigner because it was the correct English word. (Much to my regret, I do not speak Finnish.) I feel no shame in saying "I am a foreigner", though I might be insulted if you said "you are a foreigner" in a mean way.

To avoid trouble, you may wish to substitute "foreign guest", "foreign visitor", "foreign traveler", "foreign applicant", etc. These terms show that you respect the foreign person.

Finally, let me urge you not to waste too much effort on a circumlocution to avoid using the word "foreigner". Use the word when you need to. Just be sure that the context indicates respect.

thomas2 December 16, 2004 @ 4:02PM

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"Public Servant" - A public servant in the States is a person whose job is to serve the public interest. For example, a policeman, a governor, a judge, an auditor, a prosecuting lawyer. In addition, "public servants" are paid by the government.

One way of classifying jobs is to describe all government jobs as being in the "public sector" and all non-government jobs as being in the "private sector". A concierge is not a "public servant" according to this scheme, but a senator is.

The term "government worker" is not quite the same as "public servant." First, not all government workers are public servants. There are many government workers (who are paid by the government) whose jobs do not include caring for the public's interests. For example, secretaries and cooks in government offices.

Second, not all public servants are goverment workers. A judge, a senator, or a governor who consider himself a public servant (a noble calling) but would be insulted to be called a government worker (even though the government does pay him).

"Worker" connotes menial labor.

thomas2 December 16, 2004 @ 4:16PM

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What, is Texas not in America, now?

"Public servant" may be a technically correct phrase, but I was careful to say that I think very few such refer to themselves as such anymore.

Speaking of being careful, I think it's important to choose your words respectfully. It shows class, if nothing else. When we know that "foreigner" is possibly offensive to about half the people we would use it to, and we wish to avoid offense, the best course is to choose your words accordingly.

There are, naturally, times when we wish to be nasty, gauche, and crude--to throw our weight around and say "to Hell with anyone in our way." This is particularly common here in Texas. If this is the case, then we still need to choose our words properly so as to cause the maximum offense. (winks)

speedwell2 December 17, 2004 @ 8:52AM

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'non-citizen' sounds pretty negative to me. Sounds worse than foreigner in a way to my ears.

Thanks for all the thoughts everyone... this is interesting.

figs May 11, 2012 @ 12:13AM

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When did the word foreigner become unacceptable or offensiv? It is neither.

Janet is right, a foreigner may not be an immigrant. If yu are looking for another word, try outlander. Same meaning.

BTW, the band "Foreigner" had some hella good music!

AnWulf May 14, 2012 @ 11:56AM

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"Foreign Nationals"

'Murica September 14, 2013 @ 4:54AM

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@speedwell2 - just on a technical note, ESL (English as a Second Language) usually refers to the teaching of English to people living in an English-speaking country, whose first language isn't English, and so is the dominant form within the US.

What I do, however, is teach foreign learners in their own country, which in Britain, at least, is usually referred to EFL or TEFL ((Teaching) English as a Foreign Language), which is probably what most British teachers of English to non-native speakers do. And then there's the catch-all TESOL - Teaching English as a Second or Other Language.

And what about my position in Poland? I'm certainly not an immigrant, and 'Foreign National' sounds rather official to me. Within the foreign community, we often refer to ourselves as expats, but from the point of view of the Polish we are 'obcokrajowcy' - literally 'people from foreign countries'.

I would have no problem with Poles referring to me as a foreigner, and that's how I would sometimes refer to myself. Here's an example from the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary - 'The fact that I was a foreigner was a big disadvantage.'. But I agree that when talking of other people it's probably better to use the adjective 'foreign' plus a noun - 'foreign student', 'foreign workers'.

For example, in Britain, terms like 'Afro-Caribbean' never really caught on, and we usually use 'black', but rather as an adjective than a noun. Here's the Guardian Style Guide - 'should be used only as an adjective when referring to race, ie not "blacks" but "black people" or whatever noun is appropriate'. Perhaps the same might be true of 'foreign'.

Warsaw Will September 14, 2013 @ 7:59AM

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Correction - in the first paragraph it should read 'the teaching of English to people living in an English-speaking country whose first language isn't English' without a comma. And me a teacher, too!

Warsaw Will September 14, 2013 @ 8:01AM

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"People from other countries" is a better alternative for casual conversation I think. I'm Canadian, and I find the term "foreigner" to be extremely rude. It is not a term that is used much in Canada. If people feel hurt by that word, why would you insist on using it?

Lori M. October 25, 2016 @ 5:32PM

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