Sunday, April 30, 2017

Orient and orientate

[Thinking about usage.]

Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Day today is orientate. A note on usage adapted from The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (1989) accompanies the word. Here is today’s note:

Orientate is a synonym of “orient,” and it has attracted criticism as a consequence. “Orient,” which dates from the early 18th century, is in fact the older of the two verbs — “orientate” joined the language in the mid-19th century. Both can mean “to cause to face toward the east” and, not surprisingly, they are related to the noun Orient, meaning “the East.” Both also have broader meanings that relate to setting or determining direction or position, either literally or figuratively. Some critics dislike “orientate” because it is one syllable longer than “orient,” but you can decide for yourself how important that consideration is to you. Personal choice is the primary deciding factor, although “orientate” tends to be used more often in British English than it is in American English.
I see two problems with Merriam-Webster’s commentary:

~ Casting a preference for orient as a matter of stinginess about syllables is a little misleading. That red, for instance, has one less syllable than orange is not a reason to prefer red. A better reason to prefer orient to orientate is that orientate is, as Garner’s Modern English Usage (2016) calls it, a “needless variant,” doing work that orient already does. Add a dis- and orientate sounds even more ungainly: “I felt disorientated in my new surroundings.”

~ The advice to “decide for yourself” between orient and orientate is, to my mind, wildly unhelpful. On what basis will you decide? What if you hold the mistaken belief that longer words sound more intelligent? To think of “personal choice” as “the primary deciding factor” seems to miss the point that your language is for another, for some listener or reader who will be weighing what you say or write. Will orientate strike that listener or reader as intelligent and sophisticated, or as merely pompous? Will it inspire respect for what you say, or will it leave your audience wondering why you can’t just say or write orient?

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of Usage supplements its discussion with sample sentences from writers “who obviously saw nothing wrong with orientate”: W.H. Auden, Aldous Huxley, Margaret Mead, Robert Morley, and others. Yes, and one of those writers (Morley) also saw nothing wrong with using the word Chinamen. In 2017, what Merriam-Webster fails to point out is that in British English, as in American English, orient is far more common than orientate. Here’s just one Google ngram to help make the point. Choosing orientate on either side of the Atlantic might mark a speaker or writer as something of an outlier.

comments: 3

Richard Abbott said...

and yet we talk about orientation not oriention, in both the senses of a sport and a familiarisation! Perhaps the longer verb form was deduced backwards from the noun?

The Arthurian said...

Unfortunately, ORIENT doesn't support the TION ending without the TATE.

I always figured (wrongly, it seems) that "orientate" was not a synonym but an erroneous form of "orient" that had originated when people tried to reduce "orientation" back to its root.

On the other hand, "disorientated" is wonderful. The word seems to provide an example of its own meaning.

Michael Leddy said...

The OED has orientation earlier (1839) than orientate (1848). Yes, orientate, as Garner says, is a back-formation.

And yes, disorientated, like, say, discombobulated, has an air of confusion about it. But I’d still use disoriented. :)