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International Center

University of Missouri

How to “orientate” to British English

Filed in Blog, United Kingdom by on February 12, 2014

I don’t have any big events to blog about from this week, so I’d like to instead write about words. Well, just one word. A British English word, specifically. I give you:


  • The first time I heard the word “orientate” was before I even got off the bus from the airport. Our student tour guide stepped on board and announced, “We’ll take you to your residences, then meet for a guided tour so you can orientate yourself!” I was embarrassed for her, thinking she had unnecessarily inflated the word “orient” with an extra syllable in an attempt to sound grandiose. Or perhaps it was one of those unfortunate instances of lifelong misinformation, a word she’d heard wrong as a child and carried with her like some strain of mutant linguistic bacteria ever since: a sad scenario, to say the least. My heart went out to her as I was swept away to my residence before the orientating began.
  • The second time I heard the word “orientate” was an hour later at said guided tour. The poor girl. Had she no honest friends to gently break the cold, unforgiving grammatical truth to her?
  • The third time I heard the word “orientate” was from a different tour guide the next day. Maybe everybody here was misinformed? Maybe it was the accent? And then the moment of horror: MAYBE IT WAS ME. Maybe I was the one who had been using the wrong word. My Wernicke’s area failed me as I grasped at suffixes like an American grasping at suffixes (and better similes). What was happening to me? Where were my “-ate”s? I briefly contemplated flying home, but soon rationality kicked in and told me that I couldn’t fly home because of a suffix. A prefix? Maybe.
  • The next 200 times I heard the word “orientate” were in my geography classes. By this time I had accepted that it was, indeed, a word. We geography students very much like to orientate ourselves. It has become a prominent part of my vocabulary.
  • It wasn’t until tonight that I finally looked up the difference between “orient” and “orientate”:  there is none! But, interestingly, both technically mean “to align oneself to the east,” even though we all know and use them to say that we are aligning ourselves with any point of reference. (In case you were wondering, “occidentate” is not a word!). “Orient” is the more commonly used of the two, but “orientate” is almost unanimously favored in the U.K. “Orient” is also the older of the two, by over a century (the first came in 1727, the second in 1849). Mystery solved.

When I haven’t been orientating myself to linguistic nuances, I have been finding strangely symbolic street signs, like this one. There were no context clues as to its actual application to traffic laws, so I took it to be a personal message to me from the universe confirming that I was on transformative international journey.  Thanks, universe!


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