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Wikipedia:

The Middle East is a transcontinental region in Afro-Eurasia which generally includes Western Asia (except for Transcaucasia), all of Egypt (mostly in North Africa), and Turkey (partly in Southeast Europe). The term has come into wider usage as a replacement of the term Near East (as opposed to the Far East) beginning in the early 20th century. [...] The term "Middle East" has led to some confusion over its changing definitions.

Why and when did this definition change? If "East" means Asia, then clearly Turkey, Syria, Israel, Iraq, etc. (which are often referred to as "Middle East") are not in the middle of Asia. The middle would be countries like India, Kazakhstan and Nepal. (And then the "Far East" would be Korea, Japan, etc; which it is in general usage.) In the past, as above, this region was called the "Near East," which seems to make more sense. Additionally, the Wikipedia definition including part of Southeast Europe would further work against calling it "middle."

One could of course use an absolute description and call this region (excluding North Africa) "Southwest Asia" (Northwest Asia being in Russia, which is another can of worms as to the "Europe or Asia" question), but that term does not seem to be in wide use outside of the US military.

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    Who says "East" means Asia? The WW1 and WW2 Eastern fronts were all in Eastern Europe. In 1854 Crimea was in the East, as was the Dardanelles it was fought over. Oct 10, 2020 at 2:10
  • If you think it means "east of Western Europe," then why did the definition change? Oct 10, 2020 at 2:11
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    I'm more interested in why the meaning of the term changed than in what its definition was at some point in time. Oct 10, 2020 at 2:20
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    That would seem to be a language usage issue, more suited to English Language & Usage than history. Oct 10, 2020 at 2:40

3 Answers 3

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This article at the Washington Post claims the name Middle East for what was the Near East started changing after World War I, when the British started governing territories that were formerly part of the Ottoman Empire.

For British colonial administrators, the Middle East was the region that was crucial to the defense of India, while the Near East was largely under the control of the Ottoman Empire.

This all changed after the Ottoman Empire’s collapse a century ago. The Balkans and then modern Turkey began to seem more Western, while other parts of the Near East came under British control and fell victim to that empire’s bureaucratic reorganization. Winston Churchill, as secretary of state for the colonies, created a “Middle Eastern Department” covering the newly acquired territories of Palestine, Jordan and Iraq. Now this region, too, became part of Britain’s plans for defending its colonial holdings everywhere east of the Suez Canal.

Google Ngram of the phrases Near East and Middle East

During the Second world war, people starting using Middle East to refer due to the fighting the North Africa, as well as other countries in Southwestern Asia. The British imperial term became popularized in the English language.

Thus the answer is a combination of British Imperialism and world events lead to the popularization of the term Middle East.

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According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), "Near East" and "Middle East" are contemporary terms and continue to be used with similar frequencies. (You can often get access to the OED via your local library's web site). There was confusion and argument about their borders almost from the start.

The OED defines Middle East as...

An extensive area of south-west Asia and northern Africa, now esp. the area extending from Egypt to Iran. Also (esp. in early use): India and adjacent countries; an area perceived as lying between the Near East and the Far East.

And Near East as...

The region comprising the countries of the eastern Mediterranean, formerly also sometimes including those of the Balkan peninsula, south-west Asia, or North Africa. Cf. Far East n., Middle East n. The region defined by Near East is imprecise, allowing for some overlap with Middle East.

The Crimean War and the British Raj would bring English-speaking culture's attention to the region(s), which means coming up with vocabulary to describe them. The rising importance of oil, the Balkan wars, the Near/Middle Eastern fronts of World War One and World War Two, and the ongoing entanglements of Western governments with Near/Middle Eastern governments would keep English-speakers focused on the area and its vocabulary continue to evolve and be refined.

Near East Meaning

The OED's first appearance of Near East shows up in 1856.

The Far East—in contradistinction to the Near East—for the integrity of which we went to war with Russia—contains a population of six hundred millions of people, or perhaps more.

The war is the Crimean War fought primarily in the area around the Black Sea.

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The next geographical mention in the OED is 1910 associating it with the Turks (Turkey not yet existing).

In the Near East the keynote of cookery is disguise. The Turk brings his oriental love of mystery with him to the dinner-table.

In 1920, the Balkans.

He took very little notice of Balkan intrigues, because the Near East was not his business.

1973 includes Egypt.

Sue..told the Near East Desk, who..sent a cable to the Cairo Embassy.

2001 includes the Mediterranean coast of Syria.

This Ugaritic shekel..can be inter-related with all other weight systems in the Near East and the Mediterranean.

Middle East Meaning

As we'll see, there was much disagreement almost from the start.

While the OED's first record of Middle East shows up in 1876 as a synonym for Mesopotamia.

Those nations of the middle East [i.e. Mesopotamia], formerly so little known to us, have come to be best known of any in those primitive ages.

In 1897, Egypt is mentioned, although it's unclear if the intent is to include Egypt in the Middle East.

The temptation to follow the wanderings of the genius of building back to its immemorial source in the middle East and the mystic Egypt has been resisted.

In 1900, Persia (modern Iran) and Afghanistan.

The most sensitive part of our external policy in the Middle East is the preservation of the independence and integrity of Persia and Afghanistan.

In 1903, all of Asia up to India.

‘The Middle East’, that is to say..those regions of Asia which extend to the borders of India or command the approaches to India.

In 1925, the then new nation of Turkey.

The affairs of Turkey and the other countries of the Middle East.

In 1958, a lament at the confusion.

We had [in 1909] none of the sloppy modernism which lumps everything from the Mediterranean to Bengal as Middle East... Persia, Baluchistan, Afghanistan, India were the Middle East.

In 1988, another lament, this one contradicting the 1903 definition by claiming India is part of the Middle East.

Potentates in the Near East (not ‘Middle East’, please—that's India) did indeed keep elephants.

In 1991, a modern usage meaning Mesopotamia and the Arabian Peninsula.

No venue had been fixed yesterday for the crucial stage of separate bilateral talks between Israel and the Arab parties to the Middle East peace process.

Frequency of use

Wikipedia claims...

The [Middle East] has come into wider usage as a replacement of the term Near East (as opposed to the Far East) beginning in the early 20th century.

However, this does not appear to be true. Their frequency of use remains almost exactly the same.

"Middle East" Frequency.

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"Near East" frequency.

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The Army of the Middle East originated in India as part of the British Empire and during WWII was located in the Near East. When the British press were briefed on the Army of the Middle East was fighting there, ergo sun this MUST be the Middle East. If it is in print, it must be so.

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    Your answer could be improved with additional supporting information. Please edit to add further details, such as citations or documentation, so that others can confirm that your answer is correct. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center.
    – Community Bot
    Oct 7, 2023 at 12:15
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    "Ergo sun" doesn't mean anything. Are you thinking of "ergo sum" which would still be wrong here but at least means something? Or do you just mean "ergo"? Oct 9, 2023 at 16:35
  • This seems to be referring to the British Middle East Command of WW2. Its HQ was Cairo, Egypt, quite some distance from India. It was specifically set up to defend the western approaches to India during WW2, but not India. While it included Indian troops, and if necessary it could operate in India, it did not originate in India. India Command was separate command existing since the mid 1700s.
    – Schwern
    Mar 14 at 20:33

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