Which Word Wednesday: Orient vs. Orientate

By December 15, 2010 culture, language No Comments

The variations in American English and British English are curious to me. There are the vocabulary differences (boot vs. trunk, etc.).

Then there are distinct pronunciation differences (accent enhanced, I’m sure).

We say advertisement with four syllables (ad-ver-TISE-ment); the Brits say it with three (AD-vertis-ment). They pronounce often with a hard t (of-TEN); we keep the t silent, saying OFF-en (well, we should anyhow, according to most sources—but the t is making itself heard more and more these days . . . I won’t open that can of worms here).

And some words recognized in British English are not accepted at all for American English. That’s where I found today’s Which Word quandary, between the words orient and orientate.

Orient is recognized and preferred in American English; orientate is seen as nonstandard and pretentious.

In British English, however, orientate is acceptable and standard. Why is that?

According to Mark Davidson (Right, Wrong, and Risky: A Dictionary of Today’s American English Usage),

Orient (from the French orienter, meaning “to place facing east”) was adopted by the English in the 18th century, followed by the longer form in the 19th century.

Orient and orientate developed the extended meanings of “to locate east and thus place oneself in a particular relation to the points of the compass,” “to determine one’s bearings,” and “to adjust to one’s circumstances or situation.”

Risk-free recommendation: Stay with orient in the United States. 1

Dave Dowling concurs. In The Wrong Word Dictionary, he plainly states that “orient is the preferred word.”2

Patricia O’Conner, in Woe Is I, says of orientate: “The extra syllable is ugly and unnecessary, though not a hanging offense. Orient is sufficient.”3

That’s rather harsh, don’t you think? Poor old orientate. He can’t help it if Americans find him ugly.

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What’s my WWW verdict? Something about that extra syllable tate screeches down the chalkboard of my inner ear. When I hear it, I think of irregardless. In this case, I’m sticking to my patriotic linguistic guns: orientated may be fine for the Brits, but it’s tacky for us.

And what’s your verdict? Do you prefer to orientate yourself? Cast your vote and share your opinion in the comments.

Check out previous Which Word Wednesday verdicts here.

1. Mark Davidson, Right, Wrong, and Risky: A Dictionary of Today’s American English Usage (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006), 399.
2. Dave Dowling, The Wrong Word Dictionary (Oak Park, IL: Marion Street Press, 2005), 168.
3. Patricia O’Conner, Woe Is I (New York, NY: Berkley Publishing Group, 1996), 129.

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