Getting Dis- “orientated”

When I launched this blog, I mentioned something about letting you eavesdrop as I puzzle over things. Well… this is one of those “things.”

Most of the time I use prefixes and suffixes without thinking about them. After all, these accessories add meaning to root words in ways that are fairly predictable. Well, as predictable as the English language gets. You know, “-s” makes a noun plural, “-ed” makes a verb past tense, and so on. But, as you might expect with English, exceptions abound. Even English majors can have trouble sifting out the root word from a multi-syllable word that seems to be made up of nothing but add-ons, sort of like Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree.

For instance, take the common noun “orientation,” well-known to college freshmen and their long-suffering parents. I ran across an online discussion between some grammar nerds (people much like me) about whether the verb it derives from is “orientate.” My eyes narrowed. I felt sure that “orientate” was not even a word – but I could not have told you why.

Intrigued, I decided to do a root word/suffix study. (Told you I was a grammar nerd!) For this highly delicate operation I got out a pencil and put together a chart of words that end the same way as “orientation,” tracing each one backward to the root. Here is the pedigree of a couple of samples…

Root Noun………Verb made from Root Noun……..Noun made from Verb
captive…………… captivate………………………………. captivation
origin……………… originate………………………………. origination

With these two examples, I saw that the verb comes from adding the suffix “-ate” to a root noun. These verbs refer to the act of making the thing referred to by the noun. “Captivate” means to “make a captive of,” specifically by capturing the attention. (Different from saying we “capture” someone, which means bodily taking the person prisoner.)

Each noun in the third column refers to the process or ability to do the Verb. We derive these nouns from the Verb by splicing “-ion” onto the suffix “-ate” so the new suffix is “-ation.” This noun is related to the Root noun but does not mean the same thing. “Captivation,” the noun derived from the verb “captivate,” refers to the ability or process of doing the captivating – not to the actual unfortunate “captive.” Here, obviously, you actually DO drop the “-tion” back to “-ate” to go from the longer noun to its verb.

So far, so good. But I found that with other “-ation” nouns, the verb is the Root word. These stand-alone verbs are NOT derived from nouns:

Root Verb…………………………..Noun made from Verb
imagine (NOT “imaginate”)…….. imagination
orient (NOT “orientate”)………… orientation

Because these nouns sound just like ‘captivation’ and ‘origination,’ it’s easy to assume you get back to the verb by just dropping the “-ation” back to “-ate.” But since the Root verb never had a suffix, doing so actually adds a non-existent “-ate” to the Root verb. In effect you are trying to form a verb by adding a suffix to a word that is already a verb. Instead, the way to get back to the Root verb is to drop the whole suffix “-ation.”

Are you dizzy yet? Disoriented, perhaps? Surprisingly, does have a definition for “orientate” as a verb, but it dates from the 1840s and means the exact same thing as “orient,” so why use a word that is merely a longer form of itself? If any linguists out there can help me out, I’d appreciate the input. Meanwhile, this explanation is as near as I can figure.

Thanks for reading!

About Jan C. Johnson

Welcome! If you like food, reading, laughing over life's little disasters, and maybe thinking about the bigger things of life, you have come to the right place. Besides blogging, I write humorous fiction, though real life tends to leave fictional humor in the shade. But I'm not a total goofball. No, really. I'm also working on a biography project. I live in North Texas with my husband, Brent. We enjoy bicycling, Mexican food, and traveling to visit our kids and grandkids.
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3 Responses to Getting Dis- “orientated”

  1. Wow! I would have never thought to go back and look up the origin of a word such as “orientate” to see if it is truly the root of “orientation” or not. I have found to be a bit difficult at times, though, when referring to the word it’s defining (or its root) IN the definition of the word. Thanks for sharing!


  2. Jan says:

    I have noticed that too! Maybe I should get out of my chair and go look at a real dictionary.
    . . . Naaaaah.


  3. Pingback: I’m Meeting My Deadline. So There. | Joywriting: Everybody Has a Story

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