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From Baidu:

老外,是中国人对国外人的一种俗称,类似与老张、老王、老李之类的称呼。称呼中加“老”显得亲热,比如“老乡”“老表”,称呼你老外,就像称呼老张老李那样,大大咧咧,随便亲切。过去中国人对外国人的称呼都是用在第三人称上,只有“老外”可以用于第二人称。

To translate, it says laowai is a colloquial term for foreigners, similar to nicknames such as laozhang and laowang. The word lao is added to sound friendly. In the past, Chinese used terms that address foreigners as third persons, the term laowai can be used on a second person.

From Wikipedia:

Laowai is a commonly used Chinese mandarin word. It is the shortened, informal version close to wàiguórén 外国人 ("foreigner"), a better translation of Laowai would be "alien"... So Laowai 老外 is more of a neutral term which can be used as: "an obvious foreigner", "very exotic", or "adventive", "alien".

Based on the above, there are two lines of thought: one saying that 老 is added as an indication of friendliness to foreigners; another saying that 老 is added to indicate that a foreigner is "always" an outsider.

Does anyone know the exact origin of this term?

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Absolutely Baidu cannot be trusted... just well-looking. Any experienced Chinese netizen knows that. I can definitely tell you that wikipedia is exacter about the meaning. 老外 is similar to 外国佬. And is not a polite address. Besides, I don't know 老外 can be used on a second person. But 老外 is not so impolite as 外国佬. It's not derogatory sometimes. However, it never means kind. This term is used as other meanings first. But the origin of foreigner is vague and hard to know. –  halfelf Nov 17 '12 at 15:09
    
@halfelf But 老外 is totally different from "alien". Baidu this time gives the right answer. 老外 just describes one who is foreigner, with much friendliness. –  Mike Manilone Nov 17 '12 at 15:47
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@MikeManilone Seems there's much you don't know. For example, if there's some negative news on the internet, no one will use 外国人 or any other friendly words, all 老外. Search this term on Baidu and Google both. See the results you get. 老外 is only used in negative or neutral situation. There's none friendly. –  halfelf Nov 18 '12 at 0:59
    
@halfelf, I did a search on Google and indeed, there is more negativity attached to it. But I also watched a popular travel documentary where the host used the term 老外 while translating what the foreigners had just said to her in a very friendly manner. Perhaps some clues to the origin of this term can shed some light. –  Question Overflow Nov 18 '12 at 7:13
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@halfelf This time, the wikipedia page should not be trusted as always. It made many linguist statements without any reference, and not consistent with my impression of the language (as a native speaker). IMO, the statement of Laowai can be literally translated to "always" "foreigner" is WRONG. And Laowai can be used to refer to foreigner other than caucasians, just as in Billy Chan's Answer. –  fefe Nov 23 '12 at 0:52
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3 Answers

As Wikipedia mentioned, “老” is an empty prefix. Laowai is neither positive nor negative.

Actually, the word is often used to refer to a variety of races like Caucasians, Indians, Africans and Middle Easterners, who look drastically different from Asians. You will rarely hear a Chinese person call Japanese, Koreans and Filipinos 老外. That's why you hear some Chinese use this term even in the United States and Canada.

The word emerged in Beijing and became popular there. In southern China it is used less.

What's the reason you hear this word used frequently in China? Because westerners attract more attention in the public as they look different. The quickest way to refer them is with 老外. Saying 外国人 is too formal.

The word might become less popular when more foreigners start living in/visiting China. It'd be less strange to see them in the public.

The word is also used less among those who are better educated. He has a name, why call him 老外? Regardless of whether the word is negative or not, saying such is not really polite.

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The word is also used less among those who are better educated. How did you know that? I can't say I agree with it. There seems to be a lot of assumptions made here. –  deutschZuid Nov 17 '12 at 21:18
    
@James, thanks for revising some errors. I agree my points may be a little subjective, however I saw it from my experience. Labelling a person by his nation, racial is not polite, even the word itself is neutral, so more educated people will do less on that. Years ago HK people often call mainland people as 大陆人,the word is neutral, but sounds not nice. Now they say less. –  Billy Chan Nov 18 '12 at 2:39
    
Err.. I understand that this term is a bit controversial with many people having strong views, that is why I am only asking about the origin. Wikipedia did not conclude that “老” in 老外 stands for an empty prefix but rather listed a few possibilities. Is there any reason why you say it emerged from Beijing and not elsewhere? –  Question Overflow Nov 18 '12 at 7:03
    
The pronunciation sounds natural in mandarin only, It's harder to read in accent of south China. The word began in 80s when Beijing was the one of several places to see lots of foreigners. There were also lots of reports about the word used in Beijing 10-20 years ago. –  Billy Chan Nov 18 '12 at 7:40
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as you metioned, "Wikipedia saying that 老 is added to indicate that a foreigner is "always" an outsider".is totally wrong.Chinese has never ever use 老:LAO before person or object to imply "always".when use |老:lao" to mean "always",it's use just as*always* .just think there isn't something like"always person" in English.so you can image there isn't something like “a foreigner is "always" an outsider” in Chinese.Baidu is more familiar with Chinese than wiki,it's native Chinese.so you can accept the explanation of "老外".

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If you're not a native speaker, I'll just consider this answer a joke. –  halfelf Nov 22 '12 at 8:26
    
@halfelf not understand your word –  Winnie Nov 22 '12 at 8:42
    
@halfelf I'm not native English speaker –  Winnie Nov 22 '12 at 8:42
    
@halfelf are you Chinese native speaker? –  Winnie Nov 22 '12 at 8:52
    
@Winnie Thank you for your answer. If you're not a native English speaker, please try to find some help online or from friends to help clarify your answer. As it is now, it's quite hard to understand. –  Growler Aug 27 '13 at 14:31
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You have the answer in your own question

similar to nicknames such as laozhang and laowang

老 + surname is used as a way of addressing people in an informal way. As you said, a person whose surname is 张 can be called 老张 and a person whose surname is 李 can be called 老李. The same is true with younger people: 小张 and 小李。

But how do you call a foreigner, who doesn't have a Chinese family name? You take the first character (the 'surname') of 外国人 and get 老外.

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Your explanation adds more logic to support what has been stated in Baidu. But since there is an alternate explanation in Wikipedia, I would expect the answer to at least contain some references pointing to the origin. –  Question Overflow Aug 8 '13 at 3:07
    
It's merely based on what Chinese people told me. So no references, I'm sorry. –  Luis Sep Aug 8 '13 at 6:26
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