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 dictionary.com:
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 dictionary.com 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.
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.