What does Desi mean?

Desi is a word used to describe the people, cultures, and products of the Indian subcontinent and their diaspora, derived from Sanskrit देश (deśá), meaning “land, country”.

It is used to describe a person who comes from or whose family comes from India (and sometimes from Pakistan or Bangladesh), but who lives in another country.

The word Desi is borrowed from the Hindustani desī (देसी) ‘national’, ultimately from Sanskrit deśīya, derived from deśa (देश) ‘region, province, country’.

The word “Desi” comes from the Sanskrit word “Desh” meaning “country”. The word “Desi” is used to refer to something “from the country” and with time its usage shifted more towards referring to people, cultures, and products of a specific region; for example, desi food, desi calendars, and desi dress.

Desi girl Priyanka Chopra and hubby Nick Jonas having some tongue-out fun for the cameras. (Image/collage for representational purpose only.)

Desi contrasts with the Hindustani language word vilāyati (Anglicised as “Blighty”), which originally referred to Afghanistan and Central Asia, over time it came to refer to Britain (during the British rule vilāyat, an Arabic-origin word meaning ‘state’, signified Britain) but may also refer more generally to anything that is European or Western.

People from the subcontinent living in vilāyat (Britain) or in other Western countries refer to themselves and their ethnic culture as desi. The desi/vilāyati pair of antonyms is widely used in subcontinent languages (Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, Bengali etc.).

After the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the United States dramatically increased immigration from the subcontinent. As increasing numbers of students from the subcontinent arrived in the U.S. and UK, their countries of origin were colloquially referred to as deś. For example, all things Indian including Indian expatriates were referred to as “desi”.

In the U.S., as in other countries, some diaspora desis are creating a “fusion” culture, in which foods, fashions, music, and the like from many areas of South Asia are “fused” both with each other and with elements from Western culture. For example, urban desi is a genre of music formed by the fusion of traditional Indian and Western urban music.

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