Keith Allen, Los Angeles
From the Maven's Word for the Day:
Q: I'm confused about "orient" and "orientate" and "orientation." If I give an orientation, am I orientating or orienting?
A: You are doing either, for orient and orientate have the same meaning in non-technical senses.
These two verbs, drawn from the same base (French orienter 'to place facing the east', originally used of the placement of churches) have developed the same extended sense 'to familiarize with or adjust to new surroundings or circumstances'. The shorter form arose in the eighteenth century, the longer in the nineteenth. Orientate is sometimes criticized, but it is fully standard and has been used by a variety of major authors, including W.H. Auden, Margret Mead, Tennessee Williams, and Aldous Huxley. It is probably more common in England, while orient seems to be the preferred form in the United States.
Robert Burchfield, for many years the Chief Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, has written that "I have decided to use the shorter form myself in all contexts, but the saving is not great. And one can have no fundamental quarrel with anyone who decides to use the longer of the two words."
Leif: Thanks so much for your response. This is the first definitive answer I have received on the subject, despite having asked around for about 15 years.
Previously, the closest I came was someone's opionion that both terms originated in aviation during the first world war.
"Orientated" simply sounds wrong to me. I was never able to convince my friend in South Africa, who prefers "orientated." We have not discussed the issue for years, but I will send him your response.
Keith Allen, Los Angeles
I find myself disposed to using oriented when talking about a person getting their own bearings and orientated when being guided in the process by someone else, however this may just be a personal linguistic quirk.
In today’s eulogies for Ronald Reagan, I heard Margaret Thatcher use the verb ‘orientate,’ which set me aback, since I have only heard it used a few times in my life and then had thought that it was a mispronunciation of ‘orient,’ used by people who didn’t know any better. Using our Wordwizard search function, however, I did find a good deal of discussion on this topic and learned that ‘orientate’ is or was the preferred usage in Britain. None of the discussions I found, however, went as deeply into the topic as I would have liked, so, at the risk of being a bit repetitious, here’s my take on the subject. For those lovers of the English language who prefer less of its use (<:), search on ‘orient’ for the abridged versions.
ORIENT: The noun ‘orient’ is derived from the Latin adjective ‘oriens,’ derived from the present participle (‘oriens,’ rising) of the verb ‘oriri’ (from which English also gets the word ‘origin’), ‘to rise or come forth.’ Its earliest English sense is ‘the place on the horizon where the sun rises when it is near one of the equinoxes,’ i.e. the direction of the rising sun, ‘the east.’ And thus it came to be used as it is today, most often capitalized, to refer to the Asian countries to the east of Europe. But to the Romans and back in the 14th century when this English sense of the word first came into use, the ‘the East’ meant just immediately east of the Mediterranean or of Southern Europe.
The word passed into English in the 14th century via Old French as the adjective and noun ‘orient.’ With the spread of Christianity into Europe it became customary to build churches with their longitudinal axes pointing eastward toward Jerusalem. This practice gave rise to the use of ‘orient’ as a verb (via the French ‘orienter,’ a derivative of the adjective ‘orient’— 1727-41) meaning ‘to cause to face or point toward the east,’ to turn east. It was then used by extension (1842) to mean ‘to place or adjust in any particular way with respect to the cardinal points or other defined data.’ And then, finally, in 1850 it came to be used figuratively to mean ‘to adjust, correct, or bring into defined relations, to known facts or principles; to put oneself in the right position or relation; to ascertain one's ‘bearings,’ find out ‘where one is.’”
Nowadays we say that maps are ‘oriented’ toward north, but it is interesting to note that before the widespread use of the magnetic compass enabled people to easily determine the direction of north, many European maps had east at the top, since the direction could be easily established by watching the sun rise, or on a cloudy days simply by noting the ‘orientation’ (mid-19th century) of the nearest church.
The word ORIENTATE (1849) came much later to the ‘orient’ game than the verb ‘orient’ and is believed to be a ‘backformation’ of ‘orientation’ (where ‘orientation’s was either borrowed from the French or an ‘-ation’ was tacked on to the English word – circa 1830s-40s). In other words the verb, ‘orientate’ only probably arose as a result of the noun ‘orientation’ (as the verb ‘typewrite’ followed from and a backformation of the noun ‘typewriter) – I knew there was something I didn’t like about that word. (<) Back-formations (or is it ‘backformations’ or is it ‘back formations’ – dictionaries don’t agree) are sometimes revolting at first – and then somehow, sometimes, you get used to them! I’m finally getting used to ‘baby-sit’ from baby-sitter’ (1940s). However, some remain sickening forever (e.g. ‘enthuse’ from ‘enthusiasm’ – 1827, ‘surveil’ from ‘surveillance’ – 1960s). But I’m cool with the verb ‘diagnose’ (1861) from ‘diagnosis,’ ‘donate’ (1785) from ‘donation,’ and ‘reminisce’ (1829) ‘reminiscence’ (1829), and a few others (grumble!).
Note: Oriental: adjective (1386), borrowed from Old French ‘oriental,’ and directly from Latin ‘orientalis,’ of the East, from ‘orientem,’ the East.
(Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology, Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories, Oxford English Dictionary, Merriam-Webster’s and Random House Unabridged Dictionaries, Barbara Wallraff’s Word Court)<1727-41 “In most religions, particular care has been taken to have their temples oriented.—St. Gregory Thaumaturgus is said to have made a mountain give way, because it prevented the ORIENTING of a church he was building.”—‘Chambers Cyclopedia’ under ‘Orienting’>
<1842 “In surveying, to ORIENT a plan signifies to mark its situation or bearing with respect to the four cardinal points.”—‘A Dictionary of Science, Literature, and Art’ by Brande. page 857/2>
<1850 “It seems to me you might, in this way, ‘ORIENT’ yourself before the public.”—‘Letters,’ 9 Sept. by T. Parker, in ‘Life of H. Mann’ (1865), page 325>
Ken G – June 11, 2004