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老外 - foreigner 洋人 - westerner

Why does each individual character mean? When I combine the definitions, it doesn't make much sense. Also, which one is more common?

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老 (old) is a common word for making nicknames (indicates casualness, familiarity, or fondness). For example, you met someone and called him 李先生 (Mr. Lee) which is a formal address. Later you two became familiar with each other and you might start calling him 老李 instead, (similar to 'John' became 'Johny' in English)

外 (outside) 國 (country) 人 (people) people

外國人 = foreigner

老外 is a nickname for the formal term 外國人 (foreigner). It can be people of any race and from any country

洋人 short for 西洋人 (西 = west, 洋 = ocean 人 = people ; 西洋人 = westerner)

When the Europeans came to China, they came from the west by sea and the Chinese called them 西洋人. It could be shortened to 西人 or 洋人. We no longer use the term 洋人 nowadays in day to day speech, but the term 西人 is still in use for 'westerner' (white people from the western world) among Cantonese speakers (Canton is a major entry point to China by sea)

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    Just a note, Standard Written Chinese / Mandarin does not use the term 西人, the equivalent is 西方人.
    – dROOOze
    Dec 30 '20 at 11:54
  • Is there an english equivalent to 老(casualness)? Is it bro?
    – Redwood
    Dec 31 '20 at 4:08
  • I don't know. If someone is named 李志明, people who are familiar with him might refer to him as 老李,小李,大明,小明,阿明, depend on their relationship, age, and status difference. I stated it is similar to 'Johny' for 'John'
    – Tang Ho
    Dec 31 '20 at 4:16
  • And another note, when saying 东洋人, it refers to Japanese who came across east ocean.
    – Shaw
    Jan 19 at 18:57
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洋人 is a dead word. I don't think anyone uses it today other than in historical drama. 洋 means ocean and when combined with other nouns it means things came over the ocean. Such as 洋务 means foreign affairs, 洋货 means imported goods, 洋火 means matches, 洋枪 means foreign guns (spear in Chinese is also called 枪), 洋人 just means foreign people. However, all these words are dead words.

It should be a neutral word, but most people will relate the word with history when China being invaded. So there is some bad feeling about it.

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    洋务 actually means "foreign affairs", as in 洋务运动 in late Qing dynasty.
    – Victor
    Jan 18 at 17:31
  • @Victor Thanks, and fixed accordingly. I would be more careful next time.
    – River
    Jan 19 at 17:35
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    Well, many senior Chinese people who live overseas say "华人" and "洋人" quite often.
    – Shaw
    Jan 19 at 19:03
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they are not mean, they are just not kind enough :p

for me, I will use "外國人"(foreigner) or "外國朋友"(foreigner friend)

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老外 is an abbreviated colloquialism of the formal term 外国人 (foreigner).

外 (foreign) 国(country) 人 (human) = foreigner

洋人 literally means “overseas human”, which is an archaic term for “foreigner”.

① [original meaning] sea, ocean;

② [extended meaning] overseas.

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老 is more like a modal particle, expressing a mood. it may create familiarity among the speakers. eg like 老哥 (chinese equivalent of bro), 老弟...

外 means 外国人(foreigner)

洋 means foreign, it is an adjective dates back to ancient china.

人 means foreign--ER

generally,老外 is often used nowadays,especially in oral language. the formal one would be 外国人。while 洋人 is kinda old school style. or used by someone who deliberately wanted to be sounded like an old school academic.

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"老" in "老外" does not mean "old", but a prefix. I think it is a word usually be used before a name, like that in "老李". "外国人" is not a name, but here people use it as a name, so "外" is like a surname, just like "社" and "资" in "姓社还是姓资"[To choose socialism(社会主义) or capitalism(资本主义)]. It is not unfriendly to foreigners. It is a slang using between Chinese. It is neither negative nor positive.

e.g. 看,那边街上有个老外。

It means the speaker feels strange about it, and his words are just statement.

"洋人" is mostly a negative word in modern time. It was used in the 19th century. At first it is neither positive nor negative. It means "a person who comes from overseas". "西洋人" means Westerners. "东洋人" means Japanese. When time flew, a lot of foreigners became the invader, then this word became more and more negative.("八国联军""英法联军"...). Another word is "洋鬼子", it is even more hostile.

e.g. 洋人进入了圆明园,开始凶暴地烧杀抢掠。

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    老 (casualness, familiarity, or fondness) in 老外 is not the same as the 老(respect; status) in 老虎 and 老师. 洋人 doesn't include 东洋人 because Chinese had contact with the Japanese as early as the Tang dynasty and knew them as 倭人. Also, 洋人 is a neutral term, 洋鬼子 is the negative one
    – Tang Ho
    Dec 30 '20 at 15:14
  • "母亲叫儿打东洋/妻子送郎上战场"[Quoted by 《太行山上》("On Taihang Mountain"), a anti-Japanese song in the 1940s), so, Japanese are "东洋人".
    – T-Pioneer
    Dec 31 '20 at 13:21
  • "洋人" is a neutral term early, but now when we mention "洋人", it usually means the invader. I will never call a friendly foreigner or a foreigner live in modern time "洋人". If someone says so, it thinks that "洋人" has no difference to those invaders. But I was actually wrong about "老" in "老外". I will make it correct.
    – T-Pioneer
    Dec 31 '20 at 13:29
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    @T-Pioneer 洋人 is actually an approving term. It was called 夷人 in ancient times, and then after western people protested against the derogatory term 夷人, Qing government stated to use the approving term 洋人 instead, as long as 洋务运动. cul.sohu.com/20070406/n249250880.shtml
    – Victor
    Jan 19 at 2:24

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