Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Re Orientation

A current discussion I’m involved in on Twitter looks at the American preference for ‘to orient’, and how the British English use of ‘to orientate’ receives ‘undeserved scorn’ (@EditorMark).  I wondered whether ‘to commentate’ causes any problems, and the reply came back: ‘Better, usually, to "comment," but "commentate" is a common back-formation first spotted in 1794.’  In earlier days I was heavily leaned upon to say ‘comment’ and ‘orient’ rather than ‘commentate’ and ‘orientate’, though I never knew why.

This sent me looking for other ‘–ate’ ending words, to see if there were any which cuckoo-like had shoved aside ‘non-ate’ forms.  A can of worms. The first one that came into my head was ‘devastate’.  The OED  marks ‘to devast’ as in use from 1537, quotes examples until the 1630s, states that it was frequent in the seventeenth century, but does not appear in Johnson’s Dictionary (1755); it reappears at the end of the nineteenth century, but was ‘not in use’ according to Todd (Cyclopedia, 1835-59).  ‘Devastate’ appeared around 1600 (marked as 1603 in OED), but does not appear in Johnson; the OED states it was not in common use until the nineteenth century.   So there is an apparent gap between the demise of ‘devast’ and the emergence of the common usage of ‘devastate’.  And, with the appearance of ‘devastation’ in 1603, the words appear in the order ‘devast’, ‘devastation’, ‘devastate’, followed by the disappearance of ‘devast’.  Good.  (Curiously, my copy of Barclay’s Dictionary (1812) gives ‘devastation’ but neither ‘devast’ nor ‘devastate’).

‘Facilitate’ appeared in the late sixteenth century, with no variant form of ‘facilate’, despite deriving from Middle French faciliter.  EditorMark also suggests looking at ‘note and notate, administer and administrate, and intone (from c1485) and intonate (from c1631)’.   ‘Note’ was used in the sense of ‘notate music’ from the Old English period until about 1900, when it gave way to ‘note down’; the musical ‘notate’, from 1871, is considered by the OED to derive from ‘notation’, itself dating from the sixteenth century, and used in a musical context from the 1770s.  It is curious that it took 100 years for ‘musical notation’ to give rise to the musical usage of ‘notate’, but its rise coincides with the disappearance of the usage of 'note' for the sense of 'write down music'.

Did ‘to orient’ create the word ‘orientation’, and this give rise to ‘to orientate’, and this in turn push aside ‘to orient’?  ‘To orient’ appears from 1731, ‘orientation’ from 1839, and ‘to orientate’ from 1848, so the chronology works.  But chronology is not causality.  ‘Administer’ dates from 1395, but ‘administration’ predates it at 1350, and ‘administrate’ does not appear until 1538.

Henry Alford, in A Plea for the Queen’s English (1864), does not comment (or even commentate) on any of these, but we might divine his position by his comments on the word ‘eventuate’: ‘another horrible word, which is fast getting into our language through the provincial press’.  Fowler (from Burchfield’s revised third edition, 1995) examines the problem of ‘orient/orientate’, and prefers to use the shorter version, but ‘can have no quarrel with anyone who decides to use the longer of the two words’.  Incidentally, the OED states that ‘orientate is commonly regarded as an incorrect usage in American English.’


ErinBrenner said...

Great research, Julian. I wonder what makes language speakers -ate words like that. Do we think we sound more official or important when we add a suffix to a shorter word? Do short words seem more everyday and not fussy enough?

Julian Walker said...

Thanks Erin. In today's workshop at the British Library we were looking at one point at the hierarchies of sources for English words - Latin, French, Old English - and with this activity there is generally clear consensus that the Latin-based words are more formal, more distant, and carry more authority. In Latin-based words, the suffixes and prefixes are perhaps more noticeable and more diverse: inter-, extra-, -ition, -ity. Old English suffixes and prefixes are maybe shorter and fewer, and have fewer syllables (-wise, -ful, -ly) and thus are less noticeable. Thus the association between suffixes/prefixes and high status Latin-based words. This is just a theory, but sometime I'll do the statistics on it and see what happens.

Ms. Dig said...

Interesting post. I always insist on "to orient," because I shudder at the prospect of "to registrate."