Q&A: The mysteries of the orient…

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we orient ourselves with “orientate”…

Q: I was speaking to an American buddy of mine recently. And I sort of got out of sorts with her over the word “orientate”.
A: Okay.
Q: She said there’s no such word – it should be “orient”. Hashtag confused.
A: It might be time to jump on the train…
Q: Train? Is this something to do with building an author platform?
A: No, it’s all aboard… the ORIENT EXPRESS!
Q: Shall I pause for some kind of effect here? Smoke machine?
A: We didn’t have the budget for a smoke machine.
Q: Oh. Okay.
A: Ahem. Anyway, let’s start with the noun “orientation”.
Q: Yes, that week at the start the year where students enjoy live bands, free giveaways and sign up for grammar club.
A: That meaning is from the 1940s. But the main definition is from the mid 1800s – the relative position of something. This can be physical – such as points on a compass, or less tangible – like beliefs, feelings or attitudes; e.g. political orientation or even sexual orientation.
Q: Okay.
A: “Orientation” came from the much older word, “orient”.
Q: That’s countries like China?
A: Well, the noun “orient” (often written as “Orient”) can refer to the East Asia region. But the verb “orient” is to position or align something relative to points on a compass (originally it was east) – to get one’s bearings. It can also mean to angle or tailor something, such as a “business-oriented magazine”.
Q: So, what of “orientate” then?
A: Well, this is what grammar experts call a “back formation”.
Q: I think my uncle had one of those. His doctor had to drain it.
A: No, this one happened about 10 years after “orientation” arrived on the scene – retrofitting it into a new verb.
Q: So people looked at the word “orientation” and simply thought “orientate” sounded about right?
A: Yes. It has happened with other words too – lactation/lactate, vacation/vacate, situation/situate etc. But in this case, there was already a word doing that job (“orient”).
Q: So in comes “orientate” like an intruder on a reality TV show to do a job that was already being done?
A: Yep. The verbs “orient” and “orientate” have identical meanings. For example, you can have a “business-orientated magazine”.
Q: So why do both still exist?
A: Geography. When “orientate” was born, the Americans opted to stick with the original “orient”, flat out rejecting the newcomer. Meanwhile, Britain liked “orientate” perhaps because it avoided confusion with the Orient. Former colonies like Australia followed suit, but these days we recognise both.
Q: What do the dictionaries say?
A: All list both words as acceptable. Australia’s Macquarie Dictionary lists “orientate” as the main verb (with a link from “orient”), whereas American counterparts do the opposite. Meanwhile, Fairfax prefers “orient” in its style guide.
Q: My American friend thinks “orientate” sounds like hillbilly talk. She says we don’t say “presentate” or “conversate”, so why use “orientate”?
A: Well, as we saw with lactate/vacate/situate, there are examples for and against. It’s true that you’ll offend fewer people by using “orient”. But neither word is wrong outside America.
Q: I’m starting to feel a little disoriented.
A: Strangely, the differences between “disoriented’ and “disorientated” seem less defined. Many people use both – the latter for “being lost” while the former is more of a confused state of mind.
Q: Actually, if “orient” is east, does “disorient” mean west?
A: No, “occident” means west.
Q: Well did you know that the Orient Express stopped running in 2009?
A: This is your stop. Get out.


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