Q: In listening to P. D. James books with the Libby app, I often hear “disorientated,” and it always sounds uneducated to me. I know it’s standard in the UK and nonstandard in the US. My question: If I’m in London or Cambridge or Oxford and use “disoriented,” will a fellow academic think my usage nonstandard?
A: As far as we can tell, “disorientated” as well as “disoriented” are standard in British English, though “disorientated” is more popular. We’ve found both of these terms in searches of the British National Corpus, with “disorientated” about twice as common as “disoriented.” In fact, both appear in P. D. James novels.
All five standard British dictionaries that we regularly consult—Cambridge, Collins, Lexico (the former Oxford Dictionaries Online), Longman, and Macmillan—include both “disoriented” and “disorientated” as standard, but most of them describe the longer term as a British usage.
Interestingly, four of the five American dictionaries we consult the most—Dictionary.com (based on Random House Unabridged), Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster Unabridged, and Webster’s New World—include “disorientated” as well as “disoriented” as standard. American Heritage has only “disoriented.”
Dictionaries aside, would academics in the UK raise an eyebrow at the use of “disoriented” by an American? Well, perhaps. But their objections wouldn’t be justified. Both forms have been used by respected writers for centuries.
As Jeremy Butterfield explains in Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.), the two verbs that gave us those participial adjectives and past tenses “have a long history (disorient first recorded in 1655, disorientate in 1704) and both are still in use (corresponding to the noun disorientation).”
“In most contexts, disorient, being shorter, is the better form, and it is about three times as frequent in the OEC [Oxford English Corpus] data,” Butterfield writes. “Curiously, to judge by the same data, British English shows a marked preference for disorientate. As a result, disorient may be viewed by some BrE speakers as a pernicious Americanism; conversely, many AmE editors detest the longer form.”
Like Butterfield, we also prefer the shorter form in most cases, though we see no reason why a writer couldn’t use the longer version for stylistic reasons—to improve the rhythm of a sentence, for example, or to avoid an awkward rhyme.
We suspect that P. D. James varied the use of “disoriented” and “disorientated” for stylistic reasons. Here are some examples from her novels:
“But, disoriented in the claustrophobic darkness, she could no longer distinguish the ceiling from the walls” (Death of an Expert Witness, 1977).
“The contrast between the sun-warmed terrace, where once again, luncheon was set out on a linen-covered trestle table, and the dark, rank-smelling pit of the Devil’s Kettle was so great that Cordelia felt disoriented” (The Skull Beneath the Skin, 1982).
“These patients become quite disorientated during treatment” (A Suitable Job for a Woman, 1991).
“The path was barely visible but for most of the route it was fringed with brambles, a welcome if prickly barrier when, momentarily disorientated, he lost his way” (The Black Tower, 1975).
James sometimes uses both terms in the same novel, as in these two examples from A Mind to Murder (1963), the second of her Adam Dalgliesh books: “Her patient would be far too disoriented to hear or understand” … “The woman was still weak and a little disorientated and sat holding tightly to her husband’s hand.”
As for the etymology, English borrowed the verb “disorient” in the mid-17th century from désorienter, a French verb meaning to turn from an eastward position, to cause to lose one’s bearings, or to embarrass.
The Oxford English Dictionary says “disorient” had similar meanings in English when it appeared in Elise, or, Innocencie Guilty: A New Romance (1655), John Jennings’s translation of a novel by Jean-Pierre Camus: “ ’Twas Philippin who was disoriented, but more Isabella.”
The OED, citing the lexicographer Samuel Johnson, says the longer verb “disorientate” showed up in the 1704 first edition of Lexicon Technicum, an encyclopedia of the arts and sciences by the English writer John Harris.
However, Oxford doesn’t provide a citation, and we couldn’t find one in searchable online versions of Johnson’s 1755 dictionary or the 1704, 1708, 1716, and 1725 editions of Lexicon Technicum.
In the 1734 fifth edition of Lexicon Technicum, updated by others 15 years after Harris’s death, “disorientated” is defined in astronomy as “turned from the East or some other of the Cardinal Points,” and “in a figurative Sense, for the disconcerting, or putting a Man out of his Way or Element, as if you discourse of Law to a Physician, and Physick to a Lawyer, they will all be disorientated.”
The description above of the figurative sense reads a lot like this earlier entry for “disorientated” in Cyclopædia, a 1728 encyclopedia of the arts and sciences by the English writer Ephraim Chambers:
“The Word is most frequently us’d in a figurative Sense, for the Disconcerting, or putting a Man out of his Way, or Element. Speak of Law to a Physician, or of Physic to a Lawyer, and they will all be disorientated.” As far as we can tell, this 1728 example, which the OED cites, is the first appearance of “disorientated” in print.
If you’d like to read more, we wrote a post in 2012 about the verbs “orient” and “orientate.” Like “disorient” and “disorientate,” the shorter form is more common in the US and the longer one in the UK.