Thursday, August 10, 2006

I Can't Believe We -ate The Whole Thing.

My friend Rick and his wife Kelly have an ongoing argument about the acceptability of several words and he was hoping I'd back him on a point. We were visiting a few weeks back and when the subject of language came up he proposed this question: "What do you say about the word orientate?" Buffy was there as well and at the sound of this grotesque word she gave me the same look she gives when someone admits liking Jay Leno better than David Letterman: 10% skepticism, 80% horror, 10% pity. But on this point I had to let her down.

I could only shrug and grant that the word is in the dictionary. I know it sounds redundant. Orient already means "to give bearings" so why add the -ate? This is close to the argument that hates ironical. We already have the -ic adjectivation. Why add the -al? We might end up with words like "redundantical." (This reminds me of Winona Ryder's character's terrible ad-lib in Mr Deeds: "Westchestertonfieldville, Iowa.")

But to see if in fact orientate is a hypersuffixation we have to look at original forms. The earliest related form is simply orient. Traced back to Late Middle English it was a noun meaning the east and at times specifically that part of the heavens where the sun rises. In the early 16th century it meant dawn.

The transitive verb orient, meaning "to arrange facing the east" goes back to the early 18th century. It was not until the Middle 19th century that the more general meaning - "to establish bearings" - is attested. It is also at this point that we find a use of orientation. The -ation suffix is not picky. It is found on nouns derived from verbs that originally ended in -ate (moderation) or -ize (marginalization) and at times on nouns that have no corresponding verb form (constellation). It was added to some suffixless words of French origin (alteration) and then to words from various origins (flirtation < ? Old French; starvation: a Germanic mutt of a word - thank you OED).

It appears that orientation is one of those latter types. From the addition of -ation to orient [oriri + -ent (present participial of certain Latin conjugations)] we find what probably surfaced as a back formation: orientate. This might be the product of the false assumption that orientation was formed by adding the -(t)ion suffix to orientate.

I will not try to determine whether such a back formation constitutes a faulty motive and therefore a malformation. Classes begin in just over one week and the hectic demands of teaching studying and waking up before 4 P.M. will be enough to disorientatize me (it actually sounds okay if you put the primary stress on the -ent-).

1 comment:

  1. For some reason this reminds me of one my least favorite idiot-grammar moves. It's the ridiculous suffix -wise, attached to the end of almost any word by (usually) 18-year olds who have limited vocabularies.

    Person A: "So, Joe, do you need a new bed when you move into your apartment?"
    Person B (a.k.a, Joe): "Well, bed-wise I'm in pretty good shape."

    I'd love to spend ten more minutes writing ten more examples, but I'm sure you get the idea. Where does this come from? To put it more grammatically, "Of what is this verbal tick a manifestation?"


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