Continuing inconsistent use of the term ‘Asian’ and its appearance for the first time in the 2001 Census justifies an examination of its utility in population and health research. Given the potential for ‘Asian’ to describe either persons with origins in the Indian subcontinent or those originating from continental Asia, there is a strong argument in studies employing ethnicity as a measure of broad historical processes of colonialism, migration, and discrimination for privileging ‘South Asian’ over this contested term. Where the focus is on ethnicity as personal identity, there is some evidence of the emergence of bicultural terms such as ‘Asian British’ and ‘Scottish Asian’ and of more limited use regionally of ‘Asian’ and qualified terms such as ‘Hindu Asian’. However, such usage cannot be generalized to the acceptance of a pan‐Asian identity. Further, the different meanings that attach to terms such as ‘Asian’ and ‘Indian’ in the USA and Canada in terms of the specificity of each country's historical process of ethnogenesis mean that, where international comparisons are being made, accurate description of the population is needed to explain the terminology.