Editor at Large

Disorientated, Part the Second: Getting Oriented

When we last left off, we had established that orientated/disorientated is an acceptable usage in British English, while in American English it’s considered by many to be a mark of ignorant speech. Take this recommendation from the grammar section of

Orient is the word to use; orientate is a silly variant. Orient means (literally) ‘to turn and face the east’ and ‘to locate east and so adjust to the compass directions’ and (figuratively) ‘to put oneself in the right position or relation’ and ‘to set right by adjusting’. The longer variant, a back-formation from orientation, seems to prevail in common figurative use and has existed since around 1849. This has unfortunately also given rise to disorientated when the historically correct form is disoriented.

Duking It Out With the Internet Experts
The tone struck in the above quote sounds authoritative indeed, and the single quotes in the citation mean that this may even have been written by a cheesed-off Brit. There’s no way of knowing the source, however: if you visit the page, you’ll see that no citations are given to back up the claims about this “silly variant.” Not even an author is credited. This is one of the reasons why it’s been so difficult to determine the hows and the whys behind this US-UK matchup: as any good word scholar knows, if there are neither footnotes nor editors to be seen, you shouldn’t trust an Internet source.

Especially since has an entry for disorientated. Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, 2006, I give you:

dis·o·ri·en·tate –verb (used with object), -tat·ed, -tat·ing.

to disorient.

But how did we end up with this “back-formation” in the first place? If it’s really a back-formation at all: a Minneapolis word-lover posts on the very reputable WordReference forums that

disorientate is not a back formation from disorientation. The Merriam-Webster Unabridged gives its etymology as “1dis- + orient + -ate.”

Nor is orientate from orientation. The same dictionary gives the etymology of orientate as “French orienter (from Middle French) + English –ate.

There are many other verbs which have an -er ending in French and an -ate ending in English. Presumably what happened was that English borrowed some Latin verbs having the past participle ending -atus, changing it to at then to ate. Later, some French verbs ending in -er were borrowed and in some cases, -ate was added to the root as a result of the influence of the Latin etymology. In the case of orient and orientate, both the root and the root plus -ate were adopted as verbs.

This is certainly what seems to have happened in the UK, where both forms are acceptable. Still, I posit that there is yet another reason that orientate persists in Britain and not in the United States.

The Third Way: It’s Cultural!
The Britons use another word with impunity that is anathema in the U.S.:
O R I E N T A L.

In Britain, an Asian comes from India or Pakistan. Someone who is Oriental comes from China, Japan, or elsewhere that is (US)Asia and not the Indian subcontinent, or southeast Asia. That literal meaning of orient is getting more of a workout overseas, where it does not carry the offensive ethnic connotations that it does in the United States.

If you offered to get a lost Liverpudlian oriented, well, you wouldn’t want them to think you were making a threat, would you? Of course not. You would bend over backwards, use that extra syllable, and do anything you could to disambiguate your meaning. In a figurative way.

To Be Continued…
Once you find out some of the perfectly rational reasons why disorientate, orientated et al. are so popular in Britain, it’s much harder to condemn them as bad English. Of course, none of these reasons is necessarily true—that’s the beauty of the Internet. I’ll leave it to all of you to discuss in the comments section: the next new post will be coming on Tuesday of next week.

8 replies on “Disorientated, Part the Second: Getting Oriented”

awesome. i like this.

also, are single quotations marks a british thing? i always use them instead of double quotations marks because the double marks offend me.

no really.

they do.

I didn’t realize that it was considered ignorant in the US. It seems that many people here use the orientated/disorientated variant–perhaps they are just ignorant.

As for my personal preferences, I really do think that orientated/disorientated sound silly, and yes, ignorant. I just had no idea that my fellow Americans felt the same way.

The pattern orient/orientation is the same as augment/augmentation. However, one would never say augmentated. To my ears, orientated grates in a similar fashion. ( had no definition for augmentate.)

However, just when I began to feel smug, I found an entry in that somewhat weakened this commentation’s argument.

On the racial/ethnic identity forms I’ve had to fill out in the UK, I actually see Chinese instead of Oriental and I’ve noticed people seem to use the terms interchangeably (though as you said, they never use Asian in that context). I often wonder what someone Korean is expected to select.

But I can think of tons of UK examples where a specific example is used to represent a broader category (e.g. curry, pudding, hoover) and I am sure we have tons in American English that I just don’t notice due to familiarity.

Can you do a blog entry on quite? It is my absolute nemesis.

@Emily, glad you like the blog! Single quotes are absolutely a British thing–when editing in British style, I have to keep in mind the quotes work in exactly the opposite way they do in U.S. English: single quotes for a simple quote, double quotes for a quote-within-a-quote. “Rather than ‘this'” it goes ‘like “this”‘. I may do a more in-depth post on this in future if there is interest.

@Ben, I was concerned about finding the right word to describe the impression that U.S. users of orientated, et al. can make on people. Good to know it is the right one by you!

@Peter, do you mean the entry referenced in the post? Or is there yet another one?

@Carmel, thanks for reading. I was under the impression that Oriental was a broad-spectrum description for most East Asian nationalities, but if it’s appearing on identity forms perhaps it isn’t. I’m thinking particularly of the Oriental Studies departments at e.g. Oxford and UCL.

I will certainly give some thought to an entry on quite–I’ve noticed that Americans tend to insert it into their speech a LOT when they’re around the English, and it also shows up unnecessarily in academic papers. Is there any particular instance that particularly grates on you? This would be helpful in preparing an entry.

I was, in due diligence, checking for -ate endings appended to verbs ending in -ent. If you look up fomentate (not a word) you’ll find a list of suggestions that contains a few surpises. Apparently commentate and dementate are ‘in’ and augmentate and fomentate are ‘out’. Go figure.

Quite has a slightly different meaning in the UK. Back in the US, it seemed to be used in the same way as very — if I said a meal was quite good, I meant I really liked it. But when I told an English friend that the curry she made was quite good, she was rather disappointed — so visibly so that I asked her about it. We had an absurd conversation before I realized (realised?) that we were assigning different meanings to the same word.

It turns out that when the English use quite before a positive term, it actually can mean moderately, instead of very. It can also suggest that I expected the curry to be horrible, but it was it was actually OK, so I was surprised by how good it was. But when quite is modifying a negative term, such as tired, then it does seem to have an enhancing effect.

Even with this explanation I found it hard to believe, so I checked the OED and both meanings are there. Since then, I have done my best to never say it at all, though it is true that Americans seem to feel the need to say it constantly in the UK.

@Carmel — so what is it when you say something is “quite excellent”? 😉

Regarding the word “oriental” — We do say it in the USA, though it has become far less common because of, believe it or not, political correctness.

Supposedly it is insulting to call a person “oriental” because that word describes things — i.e. a rug is “oriental”, a person is “Asian”.

Kind of absurd in my opinion, but I choose my battles, and “oriental” just isn’t a word worth fighting over; so i say “Asian”.

Now if only homosexuals hadn’t gone and subverted the perfectly nice word “queer” (meaning “strange”) ;-P

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