Daily Archives: September 11, 2018


Does this word disorientate you? Or should I say disorient you?

We have many ways to innovate in English, to form new words, and one of them is to press existing words into new uses. We can do this by adding a suffix, and we can also do it by adding no suffix. So, for example, we have the word orient, meaning ‘the east’, and we make it a verb meaning ‘point to the east’ or ‘find the east’ or just ‘know which way is east and which way is west’. If we’re in England, we are likely to add a suffix and make the verb orientate. But if we’re in North America, we’ll go with the older version of the verb (older by a century, mid-1700s instead of mid-1800s), the version that, like so many English words, was formed by what linguists like to call “zero derivation” – that is, a new form is derived from the old one with zero change of form. We say orient.

You see, two important but typically competing forces in the evolution of language are economy and clarity. One the one hand, we don’t want to expend unnecessary effort; on the other hand, we need to be clear (or our listeners will expend unnecessary effort, or perhaps by not understanding us will cause us to expend unnecessary effort). So we are incentivized to innovate and incented to innove. Continue reading