When Nina Davuluri was crowned Miss America earlier this month, most of the news centered on the fact that she is the first winner of South Asian heritage. Or, for those savvy in ethnic-identity matters, she's the first "desi" Miss America.
"Desi" as a noun or adjective has become the typical way for people of South Asian ancestry to identify members of their diaspora. With South Asian-Americans like Ms. Davuluri achieving more prominence in popular culture, "desi" will no doubt become a more widely known buzzword as well.
The word comes from Hindi, with roots in ancient Sanskrit. It originally referred to someone or something native to a certain country, or "desh." Like the English word "country," "desi" can also suggest a rustic or unsophisticated background. In India, writes Asian- American studies professor Sunaina Maira of the University of California, Davis, "desi" is "sometimes used more pejoratively to index a 'country-bumpkin' sensibility."
But as South Asians have built up diasporic communities around the world, "desi" has traveled with them, used not as a put-down but as an expression of ethnic pride. Make that pan-ethnic: Anyone with heritage from the subcontinent—India, Pakistan or Bangladesh—can identify as a "desi" and partake in "desi" culture.
Movies catering to South Asians abroad have been released with titles like "American Desi" and "Desi Boyz." In 2005, MTV launched a spinoff targeting the desi demographic called, naturally, MTV Desi. (Though it didn't succeed as a cable venture, MTV Desi was relaunched last year as a digital platform.) And with backing from such luminaries as Interscope Records chief Jimmy Iovine, DesiHits Records brings South Asian entertainers to a global audience. (One such entertainer is, like Ms. Davuluri, a beauty-pageant winner: former Miss World Priyanka Chopra.)
Though "desi" has mostly been used for community-building, it has also maintained its potential as a term of derision, as in the form "ABCD," short for "American-Born Confused Desi." "ABCD" has been a way for first-generation immigrants to make light of second-generation youth who have ostensibly lost touch with their roots. There are even longer alphabetic epithets, such as "ABCDEFGHIJ" ("…Emigrated From Gujarat, Home in Jersey").
Ms. Davuluri, born to immigrants in Syracuse, N.Y., performed for her talent segment a Bollywood dance routine. By putting her desi-ness on display, she opened herself up to some depressingly racist backlash online. But as she told a pageant judge, "the girl next door is evolving as the diversity in America evolves." In that evolution, "desi" and the culture it identifies are here to stay.
A version of this article appeared September 28, 2013, on page C4 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Here She Comes, 'Desi' Miss America.