Sunday 18 April 2010

On being orient(at)ed

A correspondent writes to ask if it should be disoriented or disorientated.

The answer partly depends on where you live. If you're American, you're in no doubt that it must be the shorter form; and according to Pam Peters (in her Cambridge Guide to English Usage) the same preference is found in Canada and Australia. Some US style guides go so far as to say that orientate is simply incorrect. That's going too far, as British English uses both, with a noticeable preference for the longer form. However, overall (globally speaking), the dominance of the longer form is evident: Google has orient 65 million vs 4 million, disorient 1.2 million vs 0.2 million.

The usage issue is relatively recent. For quite a while there was only the shorter form: the OED gives a first recorded usage for disorient in 1655, and for orient in 1728. The first recorded use of the longer forms is 1704 (for disorientate) and 1848 (for orientate). The new verb probably arose as a result of the associated nouns. Orientation (1839) and orientator (1844) preceded orientate, and the new verb usage would have been reinforced by the arrival of disorientation (1860). Certainly, by the end of the 19th century both verb forms were available.

Fowler has no separate entry on either word in his Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926). We might think he would favour orient, because in his entry on 'Long Variants', he advises the use of shorter alternatives, as in prevent(at)ive, cultiv(at)able. On the other hand, in The King's English, orient is criticised as a 'Gallicism'. In his revision of Fowler's Dictionary (1965), Ernest Gowers (thinking of British English) suggests that orientate 'is likely to prevail in the common figurative use', i.e. with reference to goals rather than physical direction. This is an important distinction. We are more likely to say The course is orientated towards linguistics than The basilica is orientated towards the east.


Jonathon said...

Another pair that I haven't seen mentioned in usage manuals is cohabit/cohabitate--the OED marks the latter "Obs. rare" and has only one quotation from 1633. It doesn't even appear in Merriam-Webster. The short form wins a Google fight 378,000 to 66,200.

Stan said...

Eric Partridge wrote that orientate was correct as an intransitive ("to face in some specific direction, originally and especially to the east"), and that orient was "preferable in all other senses". But this seems to have been his personal preference more than anything else.

Gowers's prediction is something I noted in my own post about these words. The same author, in The Complete Plain Words, remarked that the figurative use of both terms was "passing all reasonable bounds". Unless I'm suffering a recency illusion, their figurative use has increased in recent decades.

Could some of the criticism of orientate be due to the (mistaken) perception that it was back-formed from orientation? Or maybe it results from the sense that we should, wherever possible, omit needless syllables...

Phillip Minden said...

Two short notes:

Google: one would have to compare the verb in an unabmbiguous phrase; "orient" without any qualification will mostly be the noun.

Back-formation from orientation: this might not be how the first instance of the verb was formed, but I'm quite sure it can play a role for people's preferences.

DC said...

Oh, sorry, yes... the 65 vs 4 million was actually for the forms oriented vs disoriented.

mollymooly said...

This is the reverse of "oblige" vs "obligate", where British English only uses the former, while American English uses the latter back-formation for "compel" and the former for "do a favour (for)".

憲次 said...

My classmates made a joke about how oriental people can get "disorientated" after seeing this essay I forward over to the class. As I went to research on it, I found out this interesting thing if you are not already aware:

Orietal and orient come from same Latin root word Orientalis, which in Latin meant to face the east, and to take your bearings. This takes into consideration that the early people's centre mark was usually the sun, so the take your bearings would be to orientate to the east, or refering to Asian countries.

"orient" c.1727, originally "to arrange facing east," from Fr. s'orienter "to take one's bearings," lit. "to face the east" (also the source of Ger. orientierung), from O.Fr. orient "east," from L. orientum (see Orient (n.)). Meaning "determine bearings" first attested 1842; figurative sense is from 1850.

"oriental" late 14c., from O.Fr. oriental (12c.), from L. orientalis "of the east," from orientem (see Orient (n.)). Originally in reference to the sky, geographical sense is attested from late 15c.; oriental carpet first recorded 1868 (in C.L. Eastlake). The noun meaning "native or inhabitant of the east" is from 1701.

Interesting to point out :-)

Cecily said...

Preventive/preventative is a similar pair, I think.

Tracy said...

Thanks Professor for finally clearing this up. Could I ask if you've answered the query about being "pressurised" to do something. I thought that this referred to something being under high pressure, like a tyre being inflated, rather than someone being "pressured" into doing something unwillingly.
I'd be very grateful for any comment on this as my Mother says it all the time. Thank you.

DC said...

Both these verbs arrived relatively recently. Pressure as a verb has a first recorded usage in 1930; pressurise in the technical sense in 1940. Evidently people wanted a technical term to distinguish it from the general one. But within five years the technical term had developed a more general sense, and both are now used, with pressured slightly more common (2:3) than pressurised in the British National Corpus. It's unusual to find two verbs so close in meaning, so I'd expect one or other to predominate in due course. But it hasn't happened yet.