Thursday, June 22, 2017



Many of us who love the English language cringe upon hearing the word orientate. Truth is, orientate is recognized by almost all respectable dictionaries. So what makes orientate so cringeworhty?

Orientate is what etymologists call a back-formation. It was born when English speakers “verbified” the noun orientation. What curls the toes of language sticklers is that we already had the perfectly good verb orient — why create a second, longer word with the same exact meaning?

Not all words created through back-formation make certain people wince. A bunch of words came to us by lopping off bits instead of adding bits. 

Secrete arrived in 1707 from secretion (1640).

Surveil came to us in 1904 from surveillance (1802).

Greed showed up in 1600 from greedy, which has been part of English since before anyone called it English.

Implode came to us in 1870 from implosion (1829).
Zip appeared in 1932 from zipper (1925).

Paginate showed up in 1858 from pagination (1841).

Incarcerate arrived in 1550 from incarceration (1530s).

Avid came to us in 1769 from avidity (1400s)

Mutate appeared in 1818 from mutation (1300s).

Humiliate arrive in the 1530s from humiliation (1300s).

And even the verb edit (1891) is most likely a back-formation of editor (1640).

Please leave any thoughts on all this in the comments section.


  1. I have no problem with any of these back-formation words except orientate. It sounds like you just got it wrong. And I know about getting words wrong. I do it all the time. Comes from speaking faster than one thinks, I suppose.

    1. I'm with you, Christine. Orientate just curdles my cheese. I do my best to accept the fact that part of the wonder of language is in the ways it changes. Orientate is more challenging than most.

  2. I'm on the cringe team with "orientate." To me it sounds like something a sleazy salesman would say. I don't know why it's so annoying. "Orient" is a perfectly good word. But maybe people think of it as a not-PC word for Asia, so they don't want to use it at all.

  3. Hi Anne - I like your theory on people's avoidance of the verb "orient." Sadly, I've always assumed people just didn't know any better, but the world's a better place when we assume positive motivations.