Everything Language and Grammar

Don’t Get Disorientated Over This One

Posted by languageandgrammar on March 22, 2009

Last week, a reader asked that I talk about the words orient and orientate and their, ummmm, evolution, so here we go.

According to Webster’s dictionary, orient first appeared in 1727 and meant to cause to face and turn to the east or to simply turn to the east, as well as “to build a church or temple with the longitudinal axis pointing eastward and the chief altar at the eastern end.” In the 1840’s, it started being used to mean getting your bearings, and according to the Online Etymological Dictionary, it was in 1850 that it started to be used in the figurative sense of getting your bearings.

Again, according to Webster’s, orientate did not appear until 1849 and meant to turn to face to the east. In 1868, it started being used in much the same way as orient. Does anyone else see a mutational red flag of misuse here? (Our descriptivist friends will surely argue that it’s not an egregious mutation but, rather, a legitimate evolution of language—oh, wait, we’ve already determined that we don’t have any descriptivist friends.)

In any case, most grammarians that I know prefer to stick with orient.

Sherry

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