The Grammarphobia Blog

International studies

Q: Why are “foreign students” now called “international students”? Is political correctness to blame?

A: Students who study outside their home countries have been referred to as “foreign students” for nearly 300 years. But a somewhat newer term, “international students,” appears to be more popular on some campuses these days, if our cursory Google searches are any indication.

Spot checks show that a great many colleges and universities prefer “international students.” But some, like the University of Iowa, use both “foreign students” and “international students.” And some organizations and agencies (like the College Board and the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs) use both too.

Overall, the “international” version seems to be far more popular, outnumbering the “foreign” phrase well over three-to-one in our Google searches.

Of the two phrases, it’s not surprising that “foreign students” is older, if only because the adjective “foreign” dates from the 1200s while “international” didn’t show up until 1780, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Our Google searches turned up quite a few 18th-century references to “foreign student” (or “students”).

The earliest we found is from a 1734 translation of Pierre Bayle’s The Dictionary Historical and Critical. An entry about a controversial German professor of divinity says, “He had most of the Foreign Students on his side.”

An encyclopedic book published in 1743, partially titled A Description of Holland, includes a reference to “foreign Students, who come hither from all Parts of Europe.”

And Charles Este’s A Journey in the Year 1793, Through Flanders, Brabant, and Germany, to Switzerland (1795), has this passage: “For general philosophy, for the belles lettres, for experimental science, for medicine, a foreign student may almost every where be better—and cannot any where be worse.”

The use of “international student” (or “students”) didn’t begin appearing until the 19th century, as far as we can tell.

Here’s a passage from an article in the Medical Times and Gazette, published in London in 1876:

“Advantage was taken of the presence in Paris … of the foreign and provincial deputies to make some preliminary arrangements towards the institution of an international students’ society—I fear, however, without much success.”

Why is “international student” preferred by many institutions of higher learning?

Perhaps, as you suggest, political correctness has something to do with it. Dictionaries list abnormal, improper, unnatural, and irrelevant among the senses of “foreign” while the more neutral “international” simply describes something involving two or more nations.

Or perhaps the longer and newer phrase is more appealing to academics and other lovers of officialese.

Check out our books about the English language