Where is the Middle East? The Near East? The Far East?

It’s no surprise that many of our place names are relatively new to English. Some (like Far East) were born during British colonization, but “Near East” and “Middle East” are more modern than that.

The word “east” is derived from the Sanskrit word “usās” meaning “dawn” or “morning.” From the perspective of Europe and Asia, this makes sense because the sun rises in the east. Conversely, the word “west” comes from the word for “evening” from the Sanskrit word “avah” meaning “to go down.” These words are all relational and dictate the space around the speaker. Our words for geography reveal where we are.

Language can dictate how we perceive the world around us. Learn about a language that does not have words for “left” and “right” here.

So, what about those three confusing phrases: Far East, Middle East, and Near East?

The simplest of these slippery phrases is the Far East. First recorded in 1616, the phrase “Far East” came into common usage in the 1800s because of British colonial expansion to eastern Asia. The term was used to describe all British colonies east of India. Today, it still refers to China, Japan and other countries on the eastern rim of Asia, but its use has declined steadily in the latter twentieth century.

First used in 1856, the term “Near East” was defined specifically against the Far East and referred to the region in Asia that’s west of India. Today, the region of the Near East is imprecise and overlaps with the Middle East. It typically refers to southwest Asia, particularly Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other nations of the Arabian Peninsula. It is not as commonly used as “Middle East.”

So where is the Middle East? Well, it depends on who you ask. The phrase “Middle East” was first used in 1876 as a synonym for “Mesopotamia,” which literally meant “between rivers” in Ancient Greek, specifically between the Tigris and Euphrates in modern-day Iraq. Over time, it has come to describe the region stretching from Egypt and Sudan in Africa to Turkey in the north to Iran. Oddly, in Asia, what we call the “Middle East” is called “Western Asia.” If you look at a map, that makes sense.

How did the Red Sea, Yellow Sea and Black Sea get their names? Find out here.

What we say about places also shapes what we think about them. The typical English definitions of East do not include Russia, the largest country east of Europe. Similarly, the ways we describe geographic regions are often influenced by political or religious affiliation. These distinctions can contradict each other, though. For example, in early 2011, the political revolutions known collectively as the “Arab Spring” pointed out the contradictions between the “Middle East” and the “Arab World,” which are sometimes used synonymously by journalists but actually refer to different geographies, nations, and cultural groups. Libya, for instance, is not in the Middle East, but it is in the Arab World.

Here’s a more minute example. In New York City, two of the boroughs, Brooklyn and Queens, are actually the western edges of Long Island. However, because they are part of “New York City” in terms of a municipality, it would be absurd to refer to them as “Long Island.”

Oddly, in linguistic terms, the world seems to stop just east of Japan. Even in China, they refer to the United States as the “West.” Though, technically, North America is “east” of China, it is considered part of the cultural West.

(Why is America called America? Learn about it here.)

What do you think about this geographic terminology? Do you use contradictory distinctions?