Editor at Large Spoken English U.S. vs. U.K. Written English

I’m So Disorientated!

As far as I’m concerned, the title of this post is completely inappropriate in the United States. I have always considered adding that extra syllable to the already unwieldy “disoriented” to be a grammar mistake up there with irregardless and could care less. But guess what?

It’s in the dictionary!

And this one’s no April Fool, I’m afraid. There’s an entry for orientate, as well.

So what gives? How can these obviously made-up words be in the dictionary? Why is a solid reference body like Merriam-Webster fomenting such erroneous pronunciation (and why don’t they pay me for mentioning them so often, already)?

Knowing what we do about English differences across the Atlantic, let’s first see if any of our pals in the UK can get us orientated. And how better to that than to consult the BNC? Good thing I already did, in March:

All those times I’ve seen “orientated” used in the English press, and been supremely freaked out by it, were ameliorated by the results I got when I compared it to “oriented” on the Corpus: “orientated” showed up half as much.

Half as much, however, is still more than we see it in the United States, where the “ate” in “disorientate” is so rare that we most definitely consider it an error.

If you follow that entry for orientate, up above, you’ll see that M-W defines it as “facing to the east” – the Latin root orient – and that there is no trace of the figurative meaning we’re more familiar with, the one that’s synonymous with discombobulated, confused.

This is a tough one. Could the U.S. have fixated on the figurative meaning, while the UK has retained both terms? Could it be that this is not a new error at all, but rather one that goes back centuries, to the first reference for disorientate in the eighteenth century?

Here’s hoping I can tell you tomorrow.

4 replies on “I’m So Disorientated!”

Rex Harrisonsays:

It’s disorientated for me all the way.

Ah, but where are you from?

It has always been my understanding that orientation, and its related words, derived from the Christian habit of positioning a corpse during burial such that it would be facing East, towards Jerusalem, in order to be prepared for the second coming and Judgement. Disorientation would involve facing a corpse in a different direction, something that was usually inflicted as a punishment for religious crimes. Oliver Cromwell, for example, was exhumed, drawn, quartered, and then re-buried facing West.

It’s just a UK/US thing. Using “orient” as a verb sounds instinctively wrong to British ears. It can also be confusing (at a push, “to orient yourself” could mean to behave in an eastern, or oriental, fashion). Tomartoes, tomaytoes, etc etc.

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